Media Coverage of the Taishi Village Affair

The matter of the Taishi village elections had been going on since July 2005 (see The Taishi Village Elections - Part 1 (Chronology)).  With the exception of The Taishi Elections - Part 2 (The KR Report), there was nothing substantive in the western media until The Guardian's Benjamin Joffe-Walt got into the story himself.  Here was the headline of his report.  On the website of The Guardian, the page title was 'He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, his body limp and twisted.'

This sensational story led to other headlines such as the one below at Daily Kos, quoting Joffe-Walt: "He lay there - his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted. The ligaments in his neck were broken, so his head lay sideways as if connected to the rest of his body by a rubber band." 

However, Joffe-Walt's report would be challenged when the democracy activist Lu Banglie showed up two days later several hundred miles away in his hometown Zhijiang.  This is what Lu's sister told the VOA reporter: "He appeared physically alright.  He seemed to be able to speak and take care of everything else.  He took off his clothes and washed them himself.  He said, 'Today is market day, but I won't be able to help you.'"  Soon, Lu Banglie began giving interviews to the press about his experience.

Any reader who had read the previous report by Benjamin Joffe-Walt must be wondering whether a modern-day miracle took place.  In explanation, Jonathan Watts of The Guardian gave this report about his own interview with Lu Banglie.  Here is the headline:

This was enough to trigger off a tirade from Chinese blogger Anti, who considered the explanation totally inadequate.  The two Anti blog posts are translated partially at The Case of Benjamin Joffe-Walt.  Anti stated the obvious fact -- Benjamin Joffe-Walt's description was not commesurate with Lu Banglie's actual conditions.  Anti also observed that Jonathan Watts did not offer any explanation for the discrepancy except for the sub-heading "Lu Banglie injured by recovering after treatment" and that was considered to be evasive and dishonest.

Who is this blogger Anti?  What is his involvement in the Taishi village affair?  First of all, Anti is a media reporter renowned for this pro-democracy stance; he is the Chinese judge for this year's Best of Blogs awards.  According to InMediaHK, Anti was personally in the vicinity of Taishi village at the beginning of October but he frankly admitted that the conditions were too dangerous to enter the village.  What was he doing?  In Anti's blog post, he wrote: "A certain Chinese-language newspaper prepared a 20,000-word 'blood-and-tears' special.  Upon speaking to Lu in person, they had to dump the whole thing."  So that may be what he was working on.  His point was this: "The Guardian's error obviously has severely affected the Taishi village case and even other future rights cases.  Whenever readers learn about another rights activist being beaten up, they will automatically think about Joffe-Walt's fantasy.  Lies cannot promote justice; they can only impede justice."

Meanwhile, Rebecca MacKinnon is wondering at RConversation:

I hope this question of a foreign correspondent's responsibility will not become a convenient way of distracting people from the core issue: one of human rights and the suppression of a democracy movement in Taishi.  Will Chinese netizens be successfully manipulated into foreigner-bashing as an acceptable alternative to communist party-bashing?

In my opinion, this is not about foreigner-bashing in the generic sense.  Anti's post ended with a praise for the professionalism of The Economist, Financial Times and BBC, all from the United Kingdom just like The Guardian.  It is really up to The Guardian to set things right, and the threshold is being set very low.  How about a simple mea culpa?  Like acknowledging that 

(1) Benjamin Joffe-Walt's description was inconsistent with the true extent of Lu Banglie's injuries. 

(2)  Still, this was understandable given the barbaric circumstances that the young and inexperienced reporter found himself to be in.

(3)  And The Guardian promises that it will have rigorous procedures in place to make sure that this will never recur.

These are three very simple talking points that no one will disagree with, and it will not erode the brand equity of The Guardian.  That is all that is being asked for.  Instead, we are getting a sub-headline "Lu Banglie injured but recovered after treatment" or that The Guardian spokesperson who will not divulge his/her name said that there shall be no comments on this matter in accordance with corporate policy.  Is this so hard?  Why continue to dig an even bigger hole as time goes by?

But let us get back to the core issue identified by Rebecca MacKinnon: "Human rights and the suppression of a democracy movement in Taishi."

The Taishi village affair did not begin on the day when Benjamin Joffe-Walt walked in.  There was a small and dedicated group outside mainland China following the case.  Trust me when I say that I know who my allies are and who the vultures looking for a dead body are.  Google and Technorati remember who they are.  Even if most of the world didn't care, we thought that it was important enough to track the developments and try to tell the story.  All the time, we asked what, if anything, can we do for the villagers?

Here is Oiwan at InMediaHK:

The Taishi village affair went from a local election to a nationally prominent grassroots democratic rights case.  Rights activists from outside Guangdong provided support.  But then the local government used violence to stop progress.  We all felt helpless, because any consequence will ultimately be borne by the local villagers themselves.

In the end, we had a dilemma: we did not want to escalate the incident irresponsibly and yet we did not wish to be mere observers on the sidelines.  At the end of September, we received the appeal from Ai Xiaoming for help.  A member on our editorial staff wondered if we should become more involved in the Taishi village affair.  But concretely speaking, what can we do?  In the end, we could only published the letter on the Internet.

To go to the extreme, I think that it might be possible to use a policy of "An Eye For An Eye, A Tooth For A Tooth."  If the local authorities can employ 50 hooligans, then the villagers can employ 200 musclemen of their own with outside financial support.  This is risky if the matter explodes, as the outsiders will watch from afar and away from harm's way while the local villagers suffer all the consequences.  Besides, there is the natural abhorrence towards achieving democratic ends through violent means.

Throughout all this, we all recognize the tristesse.  Freedom of press does not exist in China today, so a full story of Taishi village will not be told in the Chinese media.  It is up to the international media to reveal the truth of the matter through their privileged status and that may make a real difference.  Yet, there was very little about Taishi village that appeared in the western media until the moment came when the myth of the power of the western media to speak the truth was ruined in the case of Benjamin Joffe-Walt and The Guardian.  None of us want to see that happen.  We want to return to that status quo and all that is required is a very simple mea culpa from The Guardian.

Related Post: Media Coverage of the Taishi Village Affair

Related linkTaishi Village and The Guardian's big error: Western media discredited in China  Rebecca MacKinnon, RConversation, October 15, 2005; Lu Banglie lives, story dies?  Ethan Zuckerman, October 17, 2005.