Al-Jazeera journalist pans China’s Libya coverage

In reporting on the Libyan conflict, China’s media “emphasize only the humanitarian disasters caused by Western air bombardments, and [report] sparingly if at all on the violent suppression and massacre of the people by Qaddafi,” Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau chief, Ezzat Shahrour, writes on his blog. Chinese readers so far have been largely supportive of his viewpoint.

China censored the word “Egypt” back in January, then launched a vigorous campaign to suppress domestic critics for fear of homegrown revolution. So perceptions that state media are siding with Muammar Qaddafi’s authoritarian leadership are no surprise.

More remarkable is that Shahrour’s April 15 analysis was written in Chinese, was read at least 100,000 times, and has attracted many hundreds of comments, according to the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which translated the extract above. As of this morning, the article, “The Arab People Have 100,000 Questions for Chinese Media,” had not yet been censored in Beijing, according to the South China Morning Post.

The critique is notable both for its frankness and its provenance. Although there are many critics in China who see international media as undermining China’s rise with negative coverage, Al-Jazeera is not usually among those cited.

“I just don’t see what the point is of [Chinese] media spending so much money to prepare their journalists to go to a dangerous place like Libya when all these reporters do is simultaneous interpretation in China of Qaddafi’s own television station. Can’t this sort of news coverage be done just as well from Beijing?” Shahrour wrote. He told the Post he had received threats in response to the piece.   

But many of the published comments, now numbering more than 1,500, reinforce his position. “My friend, you seem like such an old China hand. Is it possible you don’t know that China simply has no media?” one responded. “These people who are cursing you out are all members of the fifty cent brigade,” another noted, using the informal name for Internet commentators on the government payroll.

China’s global media expansion is partly modeled on Al-Jazeera. Shahrour’s comments highlight a huge credibility issue that expansion will face–domestically as well as overseas–if journalists continue to prioritize the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective over the facts on the ground.