In a post made to his Chinese-language weblog on April 15, Ezzat Shahrour, chief correspondent for al-Jazeera Arabic in Beijing, voiced his frustration with Chinese state media reporting on the upheaval in the Arab world this year. Shahrour, an accomplished writer of Chinese who studied at China Medical University in Shenyang, has commented frequently on both Chinese and Western media during the past several years, and Chinese media have often sought his views, such as in this 2004 interview with Southern Weekend and this 2008 interview with People’s Daily Online.

Shahrour’s latest post received more than 100,000 visits by Monday morning, and drew over 1,300 comments (themselves well worth a read).

This post is a fascinating read particularly in light of China’s policy of “going out” in recent years, in which the government has reportedly invested heavily on state media to beef up its media presence globally and strengthen its impact on “global public opinion.” In a December 2008 speech, Li Changchun (李长春), China’s top media control official as the politburo standing, committee member in charge of ideology, said Chinese media needed “to accelerate the pace of ‘going out.’” We must, he said, have a comprehensive strategy to “take CCTV and other key central media and make them into first-rate international media with a global influence.”

Al-Jazeera has often been cited as the network whose success China must emulate as it seeks to expand its “cultural soft power.”

On the crucial issue of media credibility, and on the world’s biggest story this year, Shahrour’s perspective comes not from the so-called “Western media” that Party leaders and the official press so frequently set up in opposition to an ostensibly “Chinese voice” — one controlled and mediated by the CCP. It comes from a journalist with al-Jazeera, the very network China has so often cited as the best example of how credible non-Western voices can compete for global public opinion.

The Arab People Have 100,000 Questions for Chinese Media
By Ezzat Shahrour (伊扎特)

Every time I see Chinese media reports on the Arab revolution I feel like my blood pressure is starting to rise. My adrenalin starts to race. My colleagues advise me to cut back on my reading of Chinese newspapers, saying, “Look, reading those all the time does your health no good.” But all joking aside, I can’t change my habits. Reading the Chinese newspapers has already become a daily must for me. And while I know it’s harmful, I can’t help myself. It’s the same as with cigarettes and coffee, another of my “bad habits.” Of course, when I talk about “harm” done, I’m not talking about the Chinese media themselves, but rather about their position on issues in the Arab world, and their intentional misreading of the popular will.

I just don’t see what the point is of media spending so much money to prepare their journalists to go to a dangerous place like Libya when all these reporters do is simultaneous interpretation in China of Ghaddafi’s own television station. Can’t this sort of news coverage be done just as well from Beijing? Isn’t it a complete waste of money? In their live reports, the Chinese reporters constantly emphasize that the majority of Libyans support Ghaddafi, so I suppose those opposition members who are gathering daily on the streets and in public squares must be from some fairy wonderland (or the Chinese media believe, like Ghaddafi, that these demonstrators are just “rats”)? The Chinese media tell us how Ghaddafi’s forces are gaining ground on the opposition forces, but they don’t tell us that there are tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries killing Libyan people at Ghaddafi’s behest. They tell us that the people of Libya all enjoy free medical insurance, but they don’t tell us how many hospitals Ghaddafi has built in Libya during his 42-year rule. They tell us how the people of Tripoli are all so grateful to Colonel Ghaddafi, but they don’t tell us that in this country that exports 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, six million people live on daily rations of porridge. The so-called Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is nothing more than a bad check.

The vast majority of Arabs accept the air campaign in Libya by coalition forces, even though this is a choice made of necessity only, with the hope that the intervention of the multinational coalition will extend a lifeline to the opposition forces that represent the true will of the Libyan people. But China’s media have misrepresented this. After the bombing began, these Chinese media, who originally paid no attention at all to the Arab revolution, sprang into action, assuming the air of stalwart fighters against hegemonism. They took UN Resolution 1973 out of context, applied a double-standard to the breaking of the ceasefire agreement, kept a tacit silence on the issue of [Ghaddafi’s] foreign mercenaries, intentionally misread the reasons for the air campaign. For those Chinese viewers who managed to gather the truth from various other sources, this only brought into sharp relief the line and position being promoted in China’s media — emphasize only the humanitarian disasters caused by Western air bombardments, and reporting sparingly if at all on the violent suppression and massacre of the people by Ghaddafi.

I noticed one Chinese journalist compared Ghaddafi to Saddam. My personal view is that there are no comparisons to be drawn at all between these two men. Saddam fell more than 10 years ago, his top officials and advisors have all been either killed or thrown into jail, and rarely do people ever mention criticism of him. As for Ghaddafi’s officials, it seems we haven’t seen a single one. Those who haven’t fled or switched sides have been detained by Ghaddafi. Anyone who could sneak away has. Ghaddafi’s most trusted foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, fled to Tunisia and surrendered to the Americans. Chinese media seem blind to the fact that their deliberate misinformation has already been found out by internet users. Not long after China Central Television quoted Libyan state television saying that Libya’s former interior minister, Abdul Fatah Younis, had not in fact defected (Libyan TV used old footage of Younis and Ghaddafi together to make a fake report), Younis appeared on Aljazeera personally to refute these rumors, saying that he had already joined the opposition camp. But the latter bit of news never made it onto mainstream television in China. The examples like this are too numerous to recount.

Chinese academics and media often exaggerate the importance of so-called revolutionary leaders, and Ghaddafi now has the honor of having becoming one of the “beneficiaries” of such treatment. Some have even compared Ghaddafi’s Green Book to China’s little red book [of Mao Zedong]. But if you really understood the Arab world, you would come to the complete opposite conclusion. The Green Book has long been a joke in Libya and even in the rest of the Arab world. The words in Ghaddafi’s book are not only at odds with his actual style of rule, but they often bewilder with their internal contradictions. No one has any idea how much Ghadaffi spent to have this book translated into different languages of the world — including languages many of us have never even heard of. Chinese versions of the book came out in China in the 1980s and 90s. I won’t say any more about this. Everyone can go and find it for themselves. You can note especially his words on the differences between men and women, which will provide you greater amusement than the latest pop hit.

As I see it, media have responsibility and an obligation to report events comprehensively. Media should report it how they see it and how they know it, no matter whether the facts suit their own value judgements. Libyan state television can be used as one source of information. Through it you can understand the situation with Tripoli and Ghadaffi’s faction. But this is definitely not the only source of information. The rebels in Benghazi are people too, and they are an important side of this conflict. What I actually see, though, is that Chinese journalists are active every day in the hotels and on the streets of Tripoli, accompanying Ghadaffi loyalists to streets, hospitals and schools that have been prearranged for the convenience of their reporting. Their [media] logos frequently appear in videos in which Ghaddafi is shouting out slogans, but it’s hard to find them at important press conferences given by the opposition party.

Information is the glue that links media and viewers together. For this reason, the reliability of information becomes the standard for judging a media’s credibility. Media are not about proselytizing, they are an industry, an industry whose responsibility is to transmit information. And yet, during each successive sudden-breaking story, the effect Chinese media have as a fourth estate falls far behind that of the internet and personal media. Those who know how to obtain richer information and reassemble it will turn to the internet to understand the situation in Libya. A number of people who dare to challenge the authority of the state media have already begun to act. The information they provide make it easier for Chinese to open their eyes and see the world. Take, for example, the Old Banyan Blog (老榕). Based on what I know, as change has gripped the Arab world about 170,000 Chinese web users have turned to the Banyan News Service for timely online broadcasts. Many Chinese are no longer satisfied with getting their information form a single source, and as a direct result of this is that the positions of Chinese on the war in Libya are no longer so unified as they were on the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. One aspect of this can be attributed to the development of the web, but another aspect is the steady loss of credibility by Chinese media.

FRONTPAGE PHOTO: Ezzat Shahrour takes part in a 2009 dialogue on Tibet held by the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the United Nations.