Chinese media coverage of Iraq invasion

From Stephen Philion <>
Date Thu, 26 May 2005 09:54:51 -0500
User-agent Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.7.3)Gecko/20040910

I found this commentary/analsyis on/of Chinese news coverage during the 
Iraq invasion:

Live Coverage of Lies or Truth?

/By Li Xiguang/

" In war nothing is too deceitful"
Sun Zi (Chinese military strategist of the sixth century BC)

"This is London." When Edward Murrow said these three words, he meant 
that his listeners would get both good news and bad news from his 
broadcast, but not deceptive information.

What are we watching on TV everyday? News or propaganda? Truth or lies? 
On March 20, 2003, people were seeing, hearing, and even smelling the 
start of the Iraqi war with their eyes, ears, and noses simultaneously 
with satellite TV broadcasts. But can we trust our own eyes, ears, and 
noses in the age of globalization and global communications? Who defines 
the news we consume everyday? Media critics have theorized that news 
reporting is a subjective reconstruction of the objective world and not 
an objective reporting of the real world. In the age of information 
decentralization and fragmentation, the flow of international news is 
becoming more centralized. And the global flow of information continues 
to be one way and unbalanced.

I am grateful to the organizers and sponsors of the meeting at 
Cambridge, which commemorates the first anniversary of the Iraq War by 
starting a debate on the controversial topic of media coverage of the 
war. Here I want share my observations and experiences with Chinese TV 
coverage of the war.

Twenty-four hours, day and night, for 20 days one billion Chinese 
viewers sat glued to their television sets as soldiers fought in Iraq. 
They watched live coverage of government leaders' speeches one after 
another, government press conferences one after another, official 
slogans and national flags one after another. They were watching 
government and military-approved journalists traveling, eating, 
sleeping, chatting, and laughing with soldiers. These journalists were 
broadcasting live with "their" troops. You might have thought it was 
just the classic propaganda of the communists and the 
communist-controlled media. In actuality, the Chinese were watching CNN 
and Rubert Murdoch's channels. Since the first day of the war, the 
Chinese government handed over the country's five most popular TV 
channels to CNN and Murdoch. All the images and messages the Chinese 
audience got from their TV sets were filtered by CNN and Murdoch's people.

Since the war broke out, the three most popular government channels and 
the two most popular channels jointly owned by the government and 
Murdoch hired translators who parroted live 24-hour broadcasts from CNN 
and Fox for almost two weeks.

In covering a big event, a good journalist works this way:"I come. I 
see. I report. And I win."

But during the Iraqi war, almost all the Chinese journalists worked in 
the following way: "We do not come. We do not see it. We do not report. 
But we use CNN. And we win." Yes, indeed, CNN and Murdoch's TV 
programming did win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people with 
official messages from the White House and the Pentagon. China probably 
was the world's only country where anti-war voices were not heard in the 
press. Such terms as "invasion," "occupation," and "resistance" were all 
illegal words in the reporting of the Iraq war and post-Iraq War.

Of the 3,000 journalists reporting from Iraq during the war, not a 
single one was Chinese. Initially, the Chinese media was overjoyed about 
the upcoming war because they thought it would bring them a competitive 
edge in the country's prosperous media market. They sent more than 100 
journalists to the Iraq border prepared to cover the war. However, in 
the end, the Chinese authorities banned all of them from reporting in 
Iraq. They were only allowed to report on U.S. government and military 
briefings in the American and British governments' information center in 
Qatar, to stay with U.S. marines, and to report from the deck of a U.S. 
carrier from the water of the Gulf. When Mr. Shui Junyi, CCTV's top 
international reporter, refused to leave Baghdad in an attempt to become 
the first Chinese journalist reporting live from Iraq, the Chinese 
ambassador escorted him out of Iraq in his limousine and made sure that 
he would not sneak back into Baghdad.

In the Qatar-based government press conference room, according to a 
report by the official China News Agency, the U.S. government and its 
military spokesman favored Chinese reporters over any other country's 
journalists. Once the spokesman praised a Chinese journalist for asking 
a good question. Delighted by this praise from the US military, the 
Chinese press covered the news extensively, pushing Chinese journalists 
to work harder to please the US military spokesman.

The Chinese government had a good reason for banning Chinese journalists 
from going to Iraq to cover the war: "We don't want our journalists be 
killed in the war." This reasoning makes it seem like the Chinese 
government is the only government that cares about the life, safety, and 
human rights of journalists. But Chinese editors disclosed that the real 
reason the government decided to ban journalists from entering Iraq was 
that the government did not want to see another "accidental" bombing and 
killing by the American army. The Chinese government had a crisis in 
1999 when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and killed three 
Chinese journalists, an event that brought about nationwide student 
protests against the American-led war and the killing of journalists. As 
a display of their good feelings towards globalization, Chinese 
government officials want to prevent the manifestation of any 
sentiments, feelings, or protests that would make the American 
government feel unhappy again.

In the age of globalization, the Chinese television audience is 
increasingly becoming the passive subject of manipulation and control by 
thirteen state TV channels and nine Murdoch-owned channels.

Many people praised the live transmission of CNN by the state TV 
stations as the beginning of uncensored news reports in China, the dawn 
of press freedom in this totalitarian or dictatorial society. The only 
element that Chinese TV stations added to these relayed broadcasts of 
CNN were segments with Chinese military strategists and pundits sitting 
around a table, watching CNN and chatting about the war in a 
light-hearted atmosphere as if they were playing Chinese chess or an 
electronic game. The Chinese TV commentators and pundits dealt with the 
war with a sense of aesthetics. Fascinated by the state-of-art warships, 
warplanes, guided-missiles, war vehicles and tanks on CNN, Chinese TVs 
tried to teach their audiences to appreciate the killing machines as 
they were shown from the cameramen's angle against a beautiful sunset or 
the morning sunlight.

What the Chinese got from their screens were memorable pictures of 
falling statues, cheering Iraqis, and beautiful high-tech weapons. What 
they did not get was the toll and context of the war. The state 
programming, which had been filtered by CNN and Murdoch, was not 
interested in reporting the number of civilians killed in the war. 
Chinese news programs talked about the importance of Basra as a military 
city, but not the historical and cultural riches of the city. No one 
remembered that it is the port city where the legendary traveler Sinbad 
departed for China. In this sense, the Chinese state networks are 
becoming the tongue and the throat of the American government. If we 
measure the freedom of the press and the independence of the media by 
how close they follow lines set by the White House and the Pentagon, the 
Chinese press did become freer and more independent.

CNN and Fox followed the Pentagon line lauding the war as bringing 
freedom, depicting American soldiers as liberators. But what is freedom? 
Can we enforce the First Amendment on a global scale? Can we have a 
global democracy, which requires us to protect the underdog's right to 
speak and to make sure that the voice of the weak countries be heard?

American journalism has long been regarded as a model for many Chinese 
journalists for its brave coverage of Vietnam War and the Pentagon 
Papers. But if the model functions consciously and unconsciously to 
glorify war, it would be a great setback for those countries with an 
emerging free press.

During the Invasion of Iraq, the American government's propaganda was 
filled with symbols, slogans and images which immediately became the 
journalistic language in the Chinese press, where they read more like 
news than propaganda. Since the Chinese media did not send journalists 
to Iraq to experience and witness news events, CNN and Fox's live 
coverage naturally became what most Chinese believe to be the most 
reliable channels for providing information to the public.

Since most Chinese believe that American journalists enjoy the freest 
free press in the world, and since the American press serves as a model 
for the future of Chinese journalism, Chinese journalists and viewers 
never suspect that American journalists can sometimes fall prey to 
government and military propaganda.

When the official Chinese press was filled with war-glorifying stories 
dispatched by its correspondents from the U.S. carrier, the Chinese 
correspondents, along with their readers and viewers, never realized 
that the official propaganda frame was embedded in the minds of most 
embedded journalists. This framing provides them with guidelines as to 
how best plan topics, select sources, choose filming angles and use 
light, and how to select and delete content. They did not know that 
their news reporting served to camouflage the government propaganda.

In a war, it is understandable that the government and the military try 
to control and manipulate domestic and international public opinion in 
order to boost soldiers' morale and put pressure the enemy. The Pentagon 
has skillfully used the doctrine of Sun Zi: "In war nothing is too 

But few Chinese journalists realize that truth is the first casualty of 
war. On Chinese TV, journalists were rarely heard challenging the 
Pentagon versions and interpretations of the war, even when the 
officials gave obviously deceptive information. The Chinese journalists 
refused to believe that in a free society like the US, the media rely 
heavily on government sources when covering a war.

The Chinese audiences did not know that what they saw and heard on TV 
was not the real life of the war. It was a world seen through the frame 
of the global media such as CNN and Fox. The images, angles, the 
lighting, and the content the Chinese were watching was the subjective 
reality created by journalists and their sources. It was a mediated 
reality. Like the journalists working with the global media, Chinese 
audiences were too easily cheated and deceived by government propaganda, 
which was broadcasting a lot of misleading information along with 
deceptive and dishonest stories.

Today, everyone is talking about a booming market economy in China. It 
is said that a market economy encourages competing perspectives, 
diversified frames, the use of all possible angles in news reporting. 
But China's experience with the TV coverage of Iraq shows that, due to 
their living in the global media system, Chinese audiences are looking 
at international events in a more narrow and stereotyped way.

The landslide victories of CNN and Murdoch in China during the Iraq War 
show that in the age of globalization it is difficult to know the truth 
of news. The first step to getting closer to truth is to be freed from 
the birdcage of government propaganda and global media. No more pictures 
or live broadcasts of an embedded journalist bragging atop a military 
vehicle or aboard a carrier. Journalist I.F. Stone pointed out that all 
governments are manipulated by liars. I.F. Stone might sound extreme, 
but his critical and skeptical spirit is vanishing among both Chinese 
and American journalists living in the age of globalization. To break 
free from the propaganda birdcage, whether Chinese or American, the 
public should have both easy access and the desire to view all sorts of 
views, angles, frames, and focuses in news reporting. And that could 
only come when the international community is able to watch CNN, BBC, 
Fox, CCTV, Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi all at the same time 
when the next Gulf War comes.

If global press freedom means the international audience hears only one 
voice, sees pictures only from one perspective, and gets information 
only from one source, what does dictatorship mean? TBS

/Li Xiguang is a member of The Center for International Communications 
Studies, Tsinghua University./