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Maritime tragedy revives old questions about state media

Publication Date : 14-10-2012


In cinematic tradition, when the cheeky and villainous antihero is confronted over his own lies, he professes simply, “I lied.” Rapt viewers are then tempted to forgive this villain because, after all, he is honest about his own dishonesty, even though he is more or less forced into it.

Far more evil and despicable are those who lie about their fabrications because people unfortunate enough to have to deal with them simply cannot tell whether something they are being told is just another lie in a chain reaction of lies.

Such was the case in the aftermath of October's fatal ferry crash off Lamma Island in Hong Kong waters. When families of the victims were beside themselves with grief, the China News Service (CNS) — one of mainland China's official, state-funded news agencies — added insult to injury on October 3 by lying about China's role in the search and rescue operations.

The news organ's motive is readily understandable. The maritime tragedy had fallen on October 1, or National Day. At a time when national fervour should be high, the people — especially the skeptical Hong Kong public — ought to be persuaded to express their “heartfelt” gratitude to “the Motherland” and above all, “the Party,” as their Chinese mainland compatriots often do in the aftermath of natural disasters.

So in brazen disregard of the facts, CNS circulated on its own wire circuit a report from Beijing claiming that “95 people have been rescued by the professional Chinese rescue fleet” and that Premier Wen Jiabao has instructed the Ministry of Transport and its maritime search and rescue centre to spare no effort in helping the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government organise search and rescue operations.

Both rescuers and survivors immediately and roundly refuted the report. But the most damning evidence against the CNS claim came from none other than the pro-China Hong Kong Special Administrative Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who “clarified” that no ship from mainland China was deployed in the rescue.

Giving credit to a government or a government leader who may or may not deserve it is, again, something readily understandable in China. It's not yet clear whether Wen has had the audacity to claim the credit where credit is not due. Only one thing is certain: For one reason or another, he has so far failed to publicly comment on the report.

One reason could be that he has been too busy, wrapped up in the affairs of National Day and its aftermath. A more plausible explanation, however, would be that he understands perfectly that the country's state-funded “news organisations” are in fact propaganda apparatuses, of which the purpose is to misinform, disinform, and mislead by hook or by crook.

A minimally respectable news organization caught reporting fabrications would normally publish an explanation and an apology, especially when their blunders touch on the grieving families of victims. Not so CNS, whose topmost concern may not be its credibility, but the concealment or destruction of evidence.

The news agency later deleted its statement of China's rescue count, but the report has not been fully retracted and the claim has remained that Chinese ships facilitated the rescue, despite exposure of the glaring discrepancy between the claims and the facts.

Shortly after the CNS report, a pro-China Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong, one founded by a former heroin-smuggling kingpin, accused the SAR's independent news organizations of “trying to brainwash Hong Kong people and instigate a revolt against Chinese rule.” Look who's talking.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Over the years, the Communist Party of China has claimed it has done so many wonderful things for the Chinese people, including fighting the Japanese aggressors during the eight-year War of Resistance. Believers had better stop being gullible.


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