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Novel coronavirus outbreak puts fresh spotlight on media's racism

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-14 07:27
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While covering the World Health Organization news briefings in the past days, I was struck by how many times WHO officials have reminded people to refrain from using the novel coronavirus to stigmatize people.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program and Sylvie Briand, director of WHO Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness have all expressed that message.

The main content of their briefings, of course, is how to rally the world to fight the virus given the short window of opportunity that is available, an opportunity created by the serious measures China is taking in Wuhan and other cities, according to the WHO.

When the WHO on Tuesday named the disease caused by the novel coronavirus as COVID-19, it stated that it wanted to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an individual or group of people.

The WHO chief stressed that having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. He was clearly referring to racially charged terms used by some news outlets and politicians.

For example, a Feb 3 Wall Street Journal column titled "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia" by Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, displayed a total lack of sensitivity and journalistic ethics, especially at a time when people across China were combating the novel coronavirus.

When reporting the controversy, some Western media, such as the Euronews, still don't get why such a headline would constitute an insult to all Chinese since they never knew how that term has been used by Western imperialists, including Japanese invaders during WWII, to humiliate the Chinese. Using that kind of racial slur is as offensive to Chinese as using N-word for African-Americans, which the newspaper would not use. It is truly despicable for a respected newspaper like the Wall Street Journal.

The same is true when French newspaper Le Courrier Picard and its online edition ran respective headlines titled "Yellow Alert" and "New Yellow Peril?", triggering an immediate outcry from the Asian community in France.

A racist color-metaphor to describe East Asians by Western colonial powers, such a headline should be condemned by every reader with a conscience and every journalist with professional ethical standards.

However, the two papers are quite different. Le Courrier Picard has since apologized while the Wall Street Journal has not.

As journalists, we all know what words to avoid when it comes to people of disability, and people who are lesbian, gay and transgender and various ethnic groups. It is not about restricting freedom of press but rather upholding ethical journalism and a basic human conscience.

Germany, for example, places strict limits on speech and expression when it comes to neo-Nazis. It is illegal to produce, distribute or display symbols of the Nazi era-swastikas, the Hitler salute. Holocaust denial is also illegal in Germany.

However, when Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily paper, printed a cartoon of the Chinese national flag with virus-like symbols in place of the five stars, it infuriated the Chinese who regard blasphemy of their national flag as an insult to all Chinese.

While the newspaper editor refused to apologize, what makes things worse was Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen who jumped out to eagerly defend the paper's freedom of speech instead of denouncing its insult.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is unfortunate and a "common enemy" for the world to fight as the WHO has urged. But it also exposes how racism is still a serious disease that plagues human society in the 21st century.

The author is chief of China Daily EU Bureau based in Brussels.

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