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Chinese media: Breaking new ground
( 2003-08-22 09:22) (China Daily HK Edition)

Earlier this year, China's news media rose to challenges in a way it never had before: in the course of 30 days, mainland newspapers, television stations and other outlets became thoroughly absorbed in covering two very different, but major wars - the US invasion of Iraq and the battle against SARS at home.

As China began making global headlines earlier this year with SARS, its media organizations were setting precedents in the coverage of an international event, the Iraq war.

The war in Iraq received unprecedented coverage in the Chinese media, which led to many breakthroughs in the history of the country's news media.

While the Chinese Embassy and media groups in Iraq withdrew their staff from the country before the US-British coalition forces started their strikes, Xinhua News Agency, the country's leading wire service, managed to get first-hand news reports filed from Baghdad. The agency was the first Chinese news organization to hire a non-Chinese national, a local Iraqi, to work as a correspondent for its service. With his help, Xinhua beat its international counterparts by 10 seconds to be the first to report the start of the war on March 20.

"That set a record in the agency's 72-year history," says Liu Jiang, deputy editor-in-chief of Xinhua. In the following two weeks, Xinhua filed a total of 13,919 news reports, commentaries, round-ups, and features on the war in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic, which were readily picked up by clients around the world.

Aside from written text and photos, Xinhua also provided TV and radio stations with bulletins and audio services. Its correspondents in and around Iraq were invited to speak live on some radio and TV programmes.

Central China Television (CCTV), China's leading network, covered the war in real-time, marking another first in Chinese journalism. Three of its 12 channels, namely CCTV-1, CCTV-4, and CCTV-9, its English channel, used sources or footage from CNN, FOX TV, and Al-Jazeera, as well as Xinhua, to keep their millions of viewers informed as the war progressed.

CCTV-4, a lesser-known international channel, previously provided just about five hours of news reports daily before the war, according to Yang Gangyi, director of the news department. During the war, he says, the airing time for war-related news reached 13 hours a day. A dozen scholars on military affairs and international relations were invited to comment on and analyze televised military actions and other aspects of the war.

Rose Luqiu, Phoenix TV's war reporter, signs her new book for readers in Nanjing. Phoenix TV built up its reputation with continuous live reports sent back by its reporters from the frontline of the war in Iraq.[newsphoto.com.cn]
Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV also started a continuous live broadcast on March 20, which lasted for more than 100 hours. Phoenix's reputation swelled when senior reporter Rose Luqiu returned to Baghdad from Jordan on March 23 after the war started. She and cameraman Cai Xiaojiang became the first Chinese journalists to report a war on the spot.

Generally speaking, the Chinese media's coverage of the war in Iraq was characterized by a cautious impartiality and objectivity, focusing on events per se rather than the nature of the conflict. But ordinary Chinese developed their own opinions based on those reports. While some agreed that a dictator and tyrant like Saddam Hussein deserved severe punishment, others argued that the United States had no right to bypass the United Nations to invade a sovereign country.

Such a prompt and active response to the war in Iraq was in striking contrast to the Chinese media's usually sluggish reaction to breaking international events. One example was the seeming indifference to the events of September 11, 2001: CCTV did not supply any live coverage when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed, and few in the Chinese press made the tragedy headline news.

Shen Xi, a student with the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, has nothing but praise for the change brought about by coverage of the war in Iraq. "It was amazing to see and hear in our dorm US President Bush announcing the war. The live reports gave you the sensation that you could be anywhere, in Washington or in Beijing."

The student admits that normally he "does not pay much attention to CCTV news", saying it is often "full of political preaching rather than real news". But its coverage of the war was "professionally journalistic" and "drew me and many of my schoolmates".

CCTV's war coverage was rewarded with dramatically soaring ratings and commercial revenues. In March, the ratings of CCTV-4 alone increased 28 times, while CCTV's commercial income hit 100 million yuan (US$12 million), 30 per cent higher than for the same period last year.

More importantly, the timely and balanced coverage of the war in Iraq "signals the reform of the Chinese press and a trend to go international", according to Zhao Shuqing, a researcher with CCTV. "It really boosts the image of the Chinese news media."

That image, however, was soon challenged again by a different battle that was escalating into a fully fledged war at home, as a deadly virus reached epidemic proportions in China and affected dozens of other countries at the same time that the coalition forces occupied Baghdad.

Known as atypical pneumonia in China, the disease, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which first broke out in South China's Guangdong Province in November 2002, did not replace the war in Iraq in the headlines in China until mid-April.

When the media finally breached their silence on the epidemic in early April, the overwhelming tone was still that "the disease had already been brought under control" and "Beijing remained as normal and safe as ever". But scepticism about the official announcements of the numbers of infected SARS cases and deaths in Beijing was growing.

In mid-April, Wen Jiabao, China's new Premier, told the nation that the situation was "grave". The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the highest authority in China's ruling party, issued an order to openly disseminate information on the spread of SARS and warned that any officials found to be withholding or distorting information would be severely punished.

That led to a real turning point in the Chinese media coverage of SARS. At a press conference given by Vice-Minister of Health Gao Qiang on April 20, it was revealed that Beijing had 346 confirmed SARS cases with 18 deaths, as opposed to the 37 cases and 4 deaths previously reported. Zhang Wenkang and Meng Xuenong were then sacked from their respective posts of Minister of Health and Mayor of Beijing for "negligence of duty".

Hu Shuli, managing editor of Caijing magazine, listens to a foreign correspondent during a seminar on reporting of emergencies held in Beijing. [China News Service]
These events ushered in all-out media coverage of the war against SARS from various perspectives, ranging from stories on efforts of both the government and the people to contain the spread of the disease to reports on research on the virus and the valiant medical workers saving the lives of others while risking their own. A considerable number of articles and talk shows focused on preventive measures.

A combination of professional foresight and guts secured the reputation of Caijing - Finance & Business. The biweekly magazine, known for its bold coverage of controversial issues in connection with China's economic reform, began reporting on SARS and its causes in depth in February, when most of its domestic counterparts were occupied with the impending war in Iraq.

"I was quite sure at the time that an epidemic like SARS with so many lives at stake was more worthwhile to us Chinese journalists, as it was 'our war'," says Hu Shuli, managing editor of the five-year-old magazine. "And it involved government transparency, which gave it a weight we could not afford to ignore."

When she saw on the WHO's website on March 12 that the number of cases in Guangdong had jumped from 0 to 792, Hu recalls, "I told my colleagues that the opportunity of a lifetime was right in front of us and we must seize it." She assigned four reporters to cover SARS at first, then dedicated an entire desk of 10 people to the story. Ultimately, Caijing produced four special weekly issues on SARS, in addition to its normal publications.

"It was not simply a medical issue concerning a particular disease," says Hu, who has been named Editor-of-the-Year by the New York City-based World Press Review for her resolute coverage of the epidemic. "It was hard news with a great human touch, such as you seldom encounter. And it also concerned the people's right to know."

If the initial silence on SARS that prevailed among the Chinese press indicates an awkwardness in responding to public crisis, observes Min Dahong, a media expert with the Institute of Journalism and Communication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the performance of a vanguard like Caijing "shows the potential of their capacity to honour the people's right to know once they are determined".

Perhaps there is still a gap between reality and the desire of the people. But in the absence of an institutionalized free flow of information and effective media supervision of the government's work, the Internet played an active and positive role. Many Netizens flooded websites with comments and opinions on the control of SARS and with criticisms of some officials who shunned the epidemic that would not normally have been aired in the mainstream media.

But this atmosphere certainly helped spur the mainstream media to bolder and braver action. During the live televised press conferences held after April 20, CCTV viewers were no doubt amazed to see Chinese officials being bombarded with pointed questions and the usually polite and reserved Chinese journalists courageously interrupting one official to demand clarification of some evasive replies.

"Such a conference would never have been televised before," says Yin Hong, professor of communication with Tsinghua University. "It will really help promote government transparency and enhance the media's watchdog role."

In this sense, says Professor Du Gangjian from the National Institute for Government Administration, "SARS accelerated the opening-up of the Chinese media, which is the foundation for setting up an accountability system to hold those who violate decision-making procedures and cause losses responsible for their failures."

Both wars are now over, leaving legacies for the media to comprehend. "We cannot say that the two wars have drastically changed the nature of the Chinese media," says Hu Shuli, "which is impossible. But they both have had a profound impact on us." After the tests imposed by these two wars, she adds, at least the Chinese media have become more conscious of their mission to "inform the public and keep an eye on wrongdoing, which is constructive to China's social progress".

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