THE BLOG
05/14/2008 09:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Journalism's "Olympic Truce" with China?

Even before the recent earthquake, it looked like there might be a journalistic "Olympic Truce" in the China-West media wars.

Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists and one of the most pronounced defenders of the profession, might be the guy negotiating the truce. The IFJ issued a surprising and interesting caution May 4 in Hong Kong. After addressing a local chapter of IFJ, the organization issued a press release that said "superficial and confrontational media coverage of China in the West plays into the hands of hardliners in Beijing who have cracked down on journalists following coverage of protests in Tibet."

"The China story is complex and needs to be told in context," said White. "Shallow media coverage and commentary that appears with a political bias allows Communist leaders to stir up nationalist feelings against media adding to problems facing journalists on the ground."

White's talk came after an IFJ mission to Beijing in the week before the Hong Kong meeting. It's worthwhile trying to find out what triggered the IFJ mission, who was on it and a bit more about the give and take between the IFJ and officials from China.

Luckily, there's an excellent analysis, giving some answers, by the astute Peter Feuilherade of BBC Monitoring, a special division of the BBC that reads and analyses media around the world (For more about this extraordinary and less-known part of the BBC, see this.)

According to Feuilherade, "Signs that some Western media were looking for a way to move from confrontation with Beijing to constructive dialogue came with the arrival of a delegation from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in the Chinese capital on 13 April for a four-day official visit.

"The delegation's leader, IFJ General Secretary Aidan White, said that the row over Tibet and the Olympics was a matter for politicians, not media support groups.

He quoted White as saying that "journalists given a free hand to do their job responsibly are an antidote to ignorance and prejudice. It's time for more dialogue and less confrontation if we want to help Chinese journalists operate freely and get our colleagues released from jail."

According to BBC Monitoring, Xinhua Chief Editor He Ping, receiving the IFJ delegation on 16 April, called on journalists to produce "objective, impartial reports to reduce misunderstandings between Chinese and Western media." "Journalists must respect facts. Distorted and false reports can do nothing but deepen misunderstandings," he told the delegation in response to a question concerning recent tensions between Chinese and Western media organizations."

"Although it was unlikely that all misconceptions could be eliminated in one or two visits, the event was a good start for further communication," White said, as quoted by Xinhua.

Does the IFJ visit herald some kind of journalistic Olympic truce? Why a journalist moment of mutual self-reflection now? At the height of the media war last month, the www.danwei.org website, devoted to "Chinese media, advertising and urban life," carried this blog: "State media continues to release increasingly shrill diatribes against Western media bias as Chinese netizens take to the internet with their own protests sparked by a general perception that coverage of the riots was purposely warped and skewed by anti-China forces in the West." "I think some of the Western media have really contributed to the impression that they are anti-China rather than being merely anti Chinese government... They are condemning 'China' without making a clear distinction between China and the Chinese people," another blogger wrote on the Danwei website.

Maybe it seemed time for a bit of a search for mutual muting. That's the tack of the persuasive Feuilherade account on BBC Monitoring, suggesting a kind of informal deal or at least discussion between the Chinese minders of the press and the IFJ. Perhaps the result would be an journalistic reexamination of the tenor of coverage of China in the West, and a journalistic cease-fire from China.

As Feuilherade put it: "China's state-run media appear to be urging restraint after weeks of escalating rhetoric against the perceived bias of many Western media in their coverage of Tibet. Initial signs that both China and the foreign media were looking for a cooling-off period came during a visit to Beijing last week by a delegation of journalists from nine countries, during which a senior Chinese official called for impartial reporting to reduce misconceptions on both sides. Editorials in some Chinese state-run media suggest that the authorities are anxious to prevent anti-Western protests fuelled by a resurgence of nationalism from escalating out of their control."

Feuilherade's piece contained other gems that indicate the extent of the China campaign and the grounds for a pull-back. "The official China Daily website created an area headlined "Biased Reports Hurt China," subdivided further into sections headed "Distorted Reports", "Citizens Feedback" and "From Netizens." Headlines of the reports included "Tibet Police: Victim List Fabricated," "People Announced Dead by Dalai Clique are Still Alive: Police" and "Journalists' Association Berates Western Media." The site linked to anti-cnn.com, a website set up on 20 March "to collect, arrange and publish evidences of distorted reports from Western media", as Xinhua described it. Western media outlets accused on anti-cnn.com of having put out "fake reports" included CNN, Fox News, the BBC, the London Times and Germany's RTL television."

"As bad publicity escalated over the Olympic Games torch relay protests, the authorities in Beijing reportedly loosened censorship measures to allow newspaper editors and television producers to respond more quickly to negative publicity from Western outlets. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on 9 April that the Central Publicity Department, the Communist Party's propaganda arm, had issued an internal circular effectively telling editors to speed up their responses, without waiting for the green light from the central censorship body."

Now, possibly it's mutual pullback time. And the earthquake helps for China's repositioning and the repositioning of the temperature of reporting. See, for example, "A Rescue in China, Uncensored," in the May 14 New York Times.

As to what's the tradition of an Olympic truce: According to the official IOC website, "during the truce period, the athletes, artists and their families, as well as ordinary pilgrims, could travel in total safety to participate in or attend the Olympic Games and return afterwards to their respective countries. As the opening of the Games approached, the sacred truce was proclaimed and announced by citizens of Elis who traveled throughout Greece to pass on the message.

Of course, like all Olympic stories, this one has its significant debunkers and deniers. "It is a modern myth that wars came to an end during the ancient Olympic Games, a myth perpetuated by historians, newspapers, and even politicians. It has been repeated in books and encyclopedias. This is how kids learn about the ancient Olympic Games. It is in print in so many places that the truth has been overwhelmed by the myth.

A trivial side point: an Olympic Truce Foundation was established before the Athens Olympics. It could be a truly modern incarnation of the myth, a cyber equivalent of a ruin: all that seems left of the Foundation is a moribund but beautiful website.