Chinese media coverage of Iraq invasion
Stephen Philion <email@example.com>
Thu, 26 May 2005 09:54:51 -0500
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
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./