Thursday, April 03, 2008

THE CHALLENGES OF REPORTING IN CHINA

Last week thousands of Chinese found they were able to access the BBC News website for the first time, after years of strict censorship. They e-mailed to tell us what they thought, and many were critical of our coverage. Here the BBC's Asia bureau chief Paul Danahar, who is based in Beijing, responds to this criticism and looks at the challenges of reporting in China.

A user sent this picture of the news website up and running in China.
It is a pleasant surprise to be criticised by your readers when you work as a journalist in China.
Most of you viewing this page are unknowingly taking for granted a luxury that those of us living behind the "Great Firewall" have to do without.
We are in a bit of a vacuum, cut off from normal access to the outside world.
My TV blacks out when someone says the magic words Tibet or Tiananmen protests; my daily paper is an unsophisticated propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party and half the websites I want to read are blocked including, until recently, this one.
But when suddenly the English language edition of the BBC News website (the Chinese one is still blocked by the government) became accessible in China, some readers here, but by no means all, took exception to what they saw.
People like Xie Huai from Zhengzhou e-mailed the site saying: "I often find that stories about China diverge from the truth. Why?"
The answer to the question lies in the word "truth". Only now are many Chinese getting the chance to debate the "truth" of foreign media publications (and only those not in Chinese) because only now are they getting a point of view on some important topics at odds with the one provided by the state-controlled media.
There is, of course, enormous debate on the internet in China about all sorts of controversial issues ranging from politics to sex.
But writing about things like Tibet, Falun Gong and the Tiananmen Square protests can land you in jail.

The story that raised concerns for some of our new Chinese readers was the rioting last month in Tibet.
The foreign media was accused of misreporting the scale and nature of the trouble there.
In fact, during the BBC's total coverage of the disturbances, we managed to upset both sides of the debate.
We were the first foreign broadcasters to obtain pictures, filmed by a Chinese camera crew showing the ethnic violence against Han Chinese by Tibetans in Lhasa; events which were verified by the only (non-BBC) Western journalist in Lhasa at the time.
The Dalai Lama then said at a press conference that because of the pictures he had seen on the BBC, he was calling for an end to the violence.
However he wondered aloud if we showed them because we were biased towards the Chinese.
The next day we were the first international broadcaster to show images filmed by a Canadian crew showing the Chinese flag being torn apart and replaced with a free Tibet flag by protestors in nearby Gansu province.
That report sent the chap who presses the black-out button for my TV into overdrive all day.
People who criticise the media for their coverage in Tibet should acknowledge that we were and still are banned from reporting there.

The Tibet protests brought many challenges for Western media.
When we tried to report on disturbances outside Tibet that did not require a special permit, we were turned back at armed checkpoints.
And only a select group, not including the BBC, were eventually invited on a strictly controlled visit to Lhasa after the rioting had ended.
"It is ironic that China, a country that does not allow the operation of a free press, should accuse the Western media of bias in its coverage of the dramatic events in Tibet, including the use of double standards" - not the words of a Western journalist but of Frank Ching writing this week in the South China Morning Post.

It is not only the BBC that has suddenly became available. Wikipedia has now been partially unblocked by the Chinese.
But consider the next sentence, which I have reproduced exactly as it appears on the Wikipedia website (including the grammatical errors).
"The Dalai Lama, whom in the past was funded by CIA [21] , originally pushed for independence for Tibet, which was a slavery feudal society prior taken over by the P.R.C. government."
You can read this page in full but as soon as you click on the links of words like independence or Tibet, the connection drops off and you have to reload Wikipedia all over again.
This does not happen when you search the site for anything else.
We welcome comments from our readers and particularly those new ones in China, because they help inform what we do.
Journalists do make mistakes and when we do we have a responsibility to admit them.
"I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies."
Those are the words of satirist and serial complainer Pietro Aretino, who annoyed the great and not so good of the 16th Century with a flurry of public correspondence to the editors of his age.
It is a sentiment that should always go both ways.
BBC NEWS REPORT.

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