Media Downplays Human Rights in China

As the United Nations opens its Millennial Summit in New York September 6 with an expected 150 heads of state in attendance, the world organization is trying to refocus its mission and revive its credibility. (Never mind the cost of staging the world's most expensive photo op, or the absence of clear and agreed-upon priorities. Never mind the organization's internal divisions and continuing lack of adequate external support--e.g., the United States has yet to pay back dues! And let's not even discuss the indignity of developer Donald Trump's fast-rising and hideous 90-story luxury condo across the street, which will overshadow the UN building itself. Realty trumps reality in this town every day.)

The UN is desperate for favorable publicity. By inviting so many majordomos, Kofi & Co. can at least bank on their entourages of traveling journalists--"the boys on the plane"--to get the story into the media worldwide. Unfortunately, the UN seems to receive more coverage on a regular basis in Nigeria than New York, where its ongoing activities rarely get any attention unless there is a scandal or the United States is rallying the world's nations for a military adventure.

The week's main sideshow is the visit of two top Chinese leaders, Li Peng, now head of China's National People's Assembly but best remembered as the "Butcher of Beijing" for ordering the tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989, and President Jiang Zemin, who will be meeting privately with U.S. President Bill Clinton. I saw parliamentarians from all over the world shmoozing with the well guarded LI at a UN reception and learned that while he was welcomed, Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly had been barred by the US.

Jiang has launched a new PR offensive complete with a two-part Mike Wallace interview on "60 Minutes," now owned by Viacom. CBS hyped its "exclusive" thus: "The discussion between Wallace and Jiang ranges in tone from slightly tense to lighthearted and humorous. Wallace asks all the difficult questions." I love that phrase, "difficult questions," don't you? "Difficult" for whom, Mike? Jiang? Did I miss something? Isn't asking difficult questions what journalists are supposed to do? Would news programs in an earlier era boast of their "lighthearted and humorous" exchanges with a repressive dictator? (Jiang sings a song during the interview) Will CBS end up humanizing Jiang with all that lighthearted and humorous banter? An interview some time back on CNN between Jiang and then-Beijing correspondent Andrea Koppel, (daughter of Ted,) did just that! Jiang's handlers know how well he can dodge the uninformed let's-all-be-friends questions of U.S. interviewers.

Jiang's big TV score may be linked to the hiring of, a high-priced PR firm best known for hyping China apologist Rupert Murdoch (but less successful at plugging MediaChannel), and the opening of a $7 million cultural expo at New York's Javits Center that then will travel nationwide. (From the press release: "The exhibition will offer an unprecedented look at the beauty and diversity of China. The event is being presented free to the people of New York as a gift from the People's Republic of China.") This is intended to upgrade China's image before the U.S. Senate takes up the China Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR, formerly known as permanent most favored nation status) issue. The bill, which has more to do with U.S. investments than bilateral trade, passed after acrimonious debate last spring in the House of Representatives. The legislation exempts China from having its human rights record considered in any way that can impede American companies making money there. (Of political interest is how this affects the Gore campaign. Al backs the bill; most of his labor supporters do not.)

As for China's big budget expo (read propaganda show), I was struck that two U.S. media moguls are honorary sponsors: TimeWarner's Gerald Levin and Viacom's Sumner Redstone Both do business in China and both have toadied up to the Chinese government before. On September 28, 1999, in the midst of China's fierce crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement , Sumner Redstone, who was about to merge his giant Viacomese nation with CBS, was in Shanghai for a conference hosted by TimeWarner-owned Fortune magazine and keynoted by President Jiang.

To the delight of the Beijing government, Redstone called for American press restraint in the coverage of China. The media, he said, should report the truth but avoid being "unnecessarily offensive" to foreign governments. "As they expand their global reach, media companies must be aware of the politics and attitudes of the governments where we operate... Journalistic integrity must prevail in the final analysis. But that doesn't mean that journalistic integrity should be exercised in a way that is unnecessarily offensive to the countries in which you operate." Right, Sumner, let's keep it lighthearted and humorous.

What kind of signal do you think this sends? And talk about one-way appeasement. At the conference itself, the Chinese brazenly censored a TIME magazine special on China, published by Mr. Levin's TimeWarner. As one news report explained, "The edition, whose masthead was emblazoned with the headline 'China's Amazing Half-Century,'" fell foul of Chinese censors by including articles by exiled dissidents Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Obviously, TimeWarner was not pissed off enough to stay away from proudly endorsing the Chinese government's New York expo.

Human rights doesn't register too highly on the media's corporate agenda, any more than it seems to over at the UN. At Beijing's request, that body also excluded the Dali Lama from a meeting of world religious leaders. An "official" Chinese delegation was permitted to take part, which promptly hewed to the government line by further denouncing Falun Gong as an "evil cult."

Unfortunately, this same line has been regurgitated uncritically in many U.S. news reports as well. In late August, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post all ran strong reports on China's massive abuses of ordinary practitioners, but such reports are so few and far between that the public still has very little idea of the extent of China's human rights violations: in a little more than a year, 24 Falun Gong practitioners died under mysterious circumstances, with 50,000 arrested, pervasive torture and the incarceration of people wiithout due process in labor camps and mental hospitals. That is why I wrote "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" (Akashic Books), in which the testimonials of people we otherwise never hear from can be read. I also talk about the pathetic quality of most news reporting on the issue by media companies who evidently prefer doing business with China to asking "difficult questions" or exposing human rights violations.

Falun Gong's perspective (real interviews, not soundbites) was mostly missing from the news stories, not only after Chinese practitioners were silenced but also for institutional reasons that have to do with the structure of overseas news coverage. Few news organizations solicit comments in the United States for China-based stories. So if voices are silenced in China, they are rarely heard at all, since what human rights groups or Falun Gong followers overseas say is not usually considered part of a China correspondent's beat. This though Falun Gong practitioners are accessible on the Internet.

Another problem has to do with language and how stories are framed. In the case of Falun Gong, many news outlets, perhaps unconsciously, used the same language that the Chinese state media used in labeling Falun Gong a cult or a sect, and sometimes both in the same story. One Reuters story didn't know how to identify them so used the term "mishmash." (A Chinese practitioner asked me what the word meant.) In England, after a complaint was filed with a press oversight body regarding the use of the term "cult," an editor told me with a chuckle, "Well, we just voluntarily stopped using it. Then we just began calling them a sect."

Human Rights Watch Director Ken Roth told me that the American press doesn't know quite what to call Falun Gong either. It's not a religion. It's not really just an exercise group. It's some kind of mystical combination of things that doesn't fit into an easy label. And so perhaps out of laziness, many Western journalists have simply started using the Chinese government's terminology, which is that of cult. It's another example of the Big Lie: If you repeat a lie often enough, it's taken as the truth. And that's something that's happening."

It's not easy to report on human rights or worker protests in China, and the situation is made more complicated when Western news agencies put business interests above their journalistic responsibilities. readers will recall the whistleblower account by Beatrice Turpin, a former producer for Associated Press Television News (APTN), who believes her commitment to covering the Falun Gong story led to her dismissal and subsequent expulsion from China.

The Chinese government has also tightened its already stringent control of the media since the crackdown began. The Press and Publications Administration announced in early January 2000 that 27 newspapers and publications had been punished for violating press regulations. The Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China revealed in December 1999 that 200 local newspapers, accounting for 10 percent of the country's total, would be shut down in the year 2000 to allow the central government to reassert control over a press that might be deviating from the Party line.

Increasingly, the Falun Gong conflict has become a communications tragedy: China cannot hear the appeals of its own citizens, while the world media does not hear, or make a serious commitment to report, the ongoing cries of this significant new spiritual force. After a closer look at coverage of Falun Gong, it is easy to see that the American media and the Chinese media are not as different as they first appear. All too often, the world of news and the world of newsmakers are far apart

As the world's leaders gather in New York, and as protesters from Tibet and Falun Gong challenge the Chinese government and speak out on other issues, pay attention to whose voices are reported--and whether already compromised media companies give them the attention they deserve.


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