(CNSNews.com) – Beijing’s state television channel on Saturday became the latest network to target the Middle East, launching an Arabic service in a region of increasing economic and political importance to China.
China Central Television (CCTV) Arabic is the third foreign-language service operated by the broadcaster, which is widely viewed as a mouthpiece for the ruling communist party. Its recently-appointed head, Jiao Li, was formerly the top propaganda official of the party’s central committee.
CCTV already has international channels broadcasting in English, French and Spanish, and plans to launch one in Russian soon.
The Arabic service, broadcasting 24 hours a day, will be available in all 22 Arab countries, accessible via satellite to an audience of nearly 300 million people.
CCTV deputy president Zhang Changming told a press conference that the channel would focus mainly on “news programs” and also provide feature, entertainment and education programming.
It would serve as a “bridge to strengthen communication and understanding between China and Arab countries,” he said.
Ties between China and the Arab world are growing quickly. China obtains a quarter of its oil needs from the Middle East, and recently overtook the United States as the largest exporter of goods to the region.
At the United Nations, Arab states – like others in the developing world – look to China, a permanent Security Council member, as an important and powerful ally.
But despite the strengthening bonds, the recent unrest in China’s far-western Muslim-majority Xinjiang region showed how quickly China’s image could be damaged in Islamic countries where many are sensitive about the treatment of their co-religionists anywhere.
Although Arab governments were largely muted in their response to the violence and security clampdown, Arabs were not limited to watching their own national broadcasters’ coverage of the developments in Xinjiang, instead having access to al-Jazeera and other networks, including Western ones.
Preparations for the CCTV Arabic launch have been underway since last year. Its start this month came too late to provide Beijing’s view on the Xinjiang violence, but it will be well-positioned to do so in the future.
CCTV, which monopolizes television news broadcasts inside China, was accused by a group of Chinese academics and lawyers earlier this year of systematic propaganda, including biased coverage of embarrassing scandals, putting a positive spin on domestic events and a negative one on international developments.
Its foreign-language services have also drawn flak.
Beijing frequently accuses foreign news media of biased coverage of events taking place in China, especially in places like Xinjiang and Tibet.
It employs its own media, particularly the trio of the Xinhua news agency, the People’s Daily and CCTV, to counteract this, with focused coverage giving the state and party line.
When foreign media outlets were reporting on violent protests in Tibet and a harsh state clampdown in the run up to last year’s Beijing Olympic Games, CCTV’s foreign channels were running programs deriding the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, accusing him and his followers of provoking violence in the Himalayan territory, and reinforcing the state’s assertions that life in Tibet had improved dramatically since China occupied Tibet in 1951.
A similar situation marked the recent turmoil in Xinjiang. Weeks after protests by Uighur Muslims turned violent on July 5, CCTV’s Web site this week still carries reports vilifying the U.S.-based Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, accused of being the “mastermind” behind the incidents.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington last week, Kadeer said CCTV and Xinhua were presenting the world with “the Chinese government’s version of events” in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese government, through its proxies in the official media, is obscuring the truth in order to conceal a mass killing of Uighurs by Chinese security forces,” she charged.
Reuters reported early this year that the Chinese government planned to invest up to $7 billion to upgrade CCTV and Xinhua into globally-respected media operations.
The Middle East has become a popular market for outside television enterprises.
Apart from the big pan-Arabic networks – Qatar-based al-Jazeera and Dubai-based al-Arabiya – the BBC launched an Arabic television channel in March 2008 and the U.S.-government sponsored al-Hurra satellite network began operating in 2004.
Iran also runs an Arabic-language satellite network in the Arab world, Al-Alam; Russia has an Arabic version of the pro-Kremlin Russia Today channel, and TV networks in France and Germany also offer Arabic services.