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Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Thursday, 3 April 2008 09:53 UK

The challenges of reporting in China

Students using the internet in central China (Jan 2008)

Last week thousands of Chinese found they were able to access the BBC News website for the first time, after years of strict censorship. They e-mailed to tell us what they thought, and many were critical of our coverage.

Here the BBC's Asia bureau chief Paul Danahar, who is based in Beijing, responds to this criticism and looks at the challenges of reporting in China.

The BBC News website up and running in China. Picture: Jonathan Crellin.
A user sent this picture of the news website up and running in China

It is a pleasant surprise to be criticised by your readers when you work as a journalist in China.

Most of you viewing this page are unknowingly taking for granted a luxury that those of us living behind the "Great Firewall" have to do without.

We are in a bit of a vacuum, cut off from normal access to the outside world.

My TV blacks out when someone says the magic words Tibet or Tiananmen protests; my daily paper is an unsophisticated propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party and half the websites I want to read are blocked including, until recently, this one.

But when suddenly the English language edition of the BBC News website (the Chinese one is still blocked by the government) became accessible in China, some readers here, but by no means all, took exception to what they saw.

People like Xie Huai from Zhengzhou e-mailed the site saying: "I often find that stories about China diverge from the truth. Why?"

The answer to the question lies in the word "truth". Only now are many Chinese getting the chance to debate the "truth" of foreign media publications (and only those not in Chinese) because only now are they getting a point of view on some important topics at odds with the one provided by the state-controlled media.

There is, of course, enormous debate on the internet in China about all sorts of controversial issues ranging from politics to sex.

But writing about things like Tibet, Falun Gong and the Tiananmen Square protests can land you in jail.

Tibet tensions

The story that raised concerns for some of our new Chinese readers was the rioting last month in Tibet.

I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies
Pietro Aretino, 16th Century satirist

The foreign media was accused of misreporting the scale and nature of the trouble there.

In fact, during the BBC's total coverage of the disturbances, we managed to upset both sides of the debate.

We were the first foreign broadcasters to obtain pictures, filmed by a Chinese camera crew showing the ethnic violence against Han Chinese by Tibetans in Lhasa; events which were verified by the only (non-BBC) Western journalist in Lhasa at the time.

The Dalai Lama then said at a press conference that because of the pictures he had seen on the BBC, he was calling for an end to the violence.

However he wondered aloud if we showed them because we were biased towards the Chinese.

The next day we were the first international broadcaster to show images filmed by a Canadian crew showing the Chinese flag being torn apart and replaced with a free Tibet flag by protestors in nearby Gansu province.

That report sent the chap who presses the black-out button for my TV into overdrive all day.

People who criticise the media for their coverage in Tibet should acknowledge that we were and still are banned from reporting there.

Rioting in Lhasa ( March 2008)
The Tibet protests brought many challenges for Western media

When we tried to report on disturbances outside Tibet that did not require a special permit, we were turned back at armed checkpoints.

And only a select group, not including the BBC, were eventually invited on a strictly controlled visit to Lhasa after the rioting had ended.

"It is ironic that China, a country that does not allow the operation of a free press, should accuse the Western media of bias in its coverage of the dramatic events in Tibet, including the use of double standards" - not the words of a Western journalist but of Frank Ching writing this week in the South China Morning Post.

Disagreement and debate

It is not only the BBC that has suddenly became available. Wikipedia has now been partially unblocked by the Chinese.

But consider the next sentence, which I have reproduced exactly as it appears on the Wikipedia website (including the grammatical errors).

"The Dalai Lama, whom in the past was funded by CIA [21] , originally pushed for independence for Tibet, which was a slavery feudal society prior taken over by the P.R.C. government."

You can read this page in full but as soon as you click on the links of words like independence or Tibet, the connection drops off and you have to reload Wikipedia all over again.

This does not happen when you search the site for anything else.

We welcome comments from our readers and particularly those new ones in China, because they help inform what we do.

Journalists do make mistakes and when we do we have a responsibility to admit them.

"I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies."

Those are the words of satirist and serial complainer Pietro Aretino, who annoyed the great and not so good of the 16th Century with a flurry of public correspondence to the editors of his age.

It is a sentiment that should always go both ways.


Your comments

As a fellow media person in the Chinese capital, I would agree mostly with what you have said. I do think, however, a lot of international media were quick to report without verifying their facts. It was a big window for sensationalism and I think a lot of journalists took advantage of the situation.
Cathleen, China

Well, I think all media are biased to some degree. The Chinese government blocked the BBC and CNN because they want to protect Chinese people from false news. Sometimes I really don't know which one to believe. I still have my own judgement. As a reader, I try my best to have my own opinion about everything, so no media can lead me to one side.
Helen, Hangzhou, China

While in Canada, I always checked BBC online and watched it on TV when I could. I also read China Daily online. I read both so that I could get a balanced idea of what was going on in China and get another view of world events.
Sean Henderson, Beijing, China

I think some western media haven't reported Tibet in an unsentimental way. Their unhappy choice of words hurt many people's feelings. However, I have to admit that human rights in China are not as free as in your country. We are free to talk about human rights with people we know, but not online. However, we are improving so stop criticising!
Easy, China

No media on the planet can report without bias - and none should be blamed as long as this is not their intention. For an average person, we must be given the right to access all media sources in order to know what all kinds of people think of an issue, thus draw our own conclusions after critical thinking. And this is in desperate need in China. I am a Beijinger currently residing in Hong Kong.
Han, Hong Kong, China

BBC News has always been a symbol of impartiality and objectivity in my mind. And I don't think those who angrily accused you of distortion have actually read more than three of your stories. However, I suggest that more care should be taken in all of your China related reports in the future, because the national sensitivity of your Chinese readers may be greater than any others in the world. Building and keeping a reputation here will be especially difficult for a western media.
Chen, Hefei, China

I lived in the UK for a couple of years, and never saw the BBC broadcasting any good things about China.
PPJJ, Shanghai, China

Ordinary people in China are aware that their words can land them in trouble if they present China other than the harmonious society the government wants you to imagine.
Steven, Atlanta, GA

I am eighteen years old, and a Chinese student who has a British passport. Until the riots broke out in Tibet, the BBC website was my main source of news as I had always felt that its reporting tried to present more than one viewpoint. Recently, however, I and many of my friends have become disillusioned with the BBC. The reporting on the Tibet issue in the past few weeks has been far from the standards that I have come to expect.
Haiyue Yu, Bristol, UK

I have extensive links to China and travel there quite frequently. I was saddened by the patronising, not to say sarcastic tone of this article. Being highly partisan to a western view of world events it has no objectivity.
Robert, Birmingham, UK

Rather than giving China credit for the unarguable progress they are making, the western media seems intent on encouraging those who would disrupt the Olympics for their own purposes. If the BBC used the standards that it applies to China in its reporting about other world events, there would be a worldwide outcry.
John Morgan, Newark, NJ, USA

Chinese citizens are bound to feel a certain amount of surprise at the view of western countries towards their country. I feel that this is the barrier we must overcome if relations with China are to improve. China must allow two sides to every argument and accept that people seeing the situation from a different perspective may shed light on it in a different way.
James Robinson, Monchengladbach, Germany

I am a Chinese student in UK. I think the BBC should introduce more history background of Tibet, which will help readers understand the events better. China is my home country, the UK provides me studentship. I love both China and the UK. I am afraid the media will make people become enemies.
Sheng Liu, UK

I am astonished that the Chinese government has unblocked this website and allowed my counterparts to enjoy this "luxury". This is, indeed, a stride towards democracy. However, BBC, an international giant media, doesn't give any positive comments on this improvement.
Yao, Leipzig, Germany

I spent several months in China as an exchange student in 1998. What I noticed is that, whenever an educated Chinese person is confronted with information about their country that conflicts with official sources, they shut down. It is not possible to reason, to convince, or to discuss in these cases - Tibet being a prominent one, and Taiwan another. The BBC is I'm sure as close to the truth in Tibet as we're likely to reach at the moment, but because these reports differ from official propaganda, most of your feedback from China will be, "The BBC is anti-China." I fear you may be wasting your time.
Adam Birnbaum, Sunnyvale, CA USA

As a Chinese student who's studying Politics and International Studies in the UK, I have tried my best to take a neutral standpoint in this issue. Undeniably information circulation is far from free in China at the moment, but many western media take the advantage of that and exaggerate the limited information they've obtained without even justifying their words.You people claim that we don't see the truth, but where does your truth come from? Media should take responsibility for their words, since the effect on the population is beyond your imagination.
Phoebe, Coventry, UK

Media persons should be responsible for their reports and work with their loyalties to truth and facts. I think most media in western countries is free to have their say about any facts, so news should not be affected by political prejudice. I think that is showing respect to worldwide audience.
Yun Chen, Shanghai

I am reading this in the US. In the US I can read reports from all over the world, and I am not subject to the Chinese government's propaganda or restrictions as you put it. But I can tell you this: the western media report on the Lhasa riots was absolutely biased. Everything the Chinese government did was given a negative interpretation. Every time I read a western news report or analysis about the Lhasa riots I couldn't help but felt that the western media is anti-China and anti-Chinese. Knowing this, there is no point in allowing western media to enter Tibet and see first hand the situations there. You know that they will always blame the Chinese government and portray the Tibetans as victims anyway.
Agus, Los Angeles, USA



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