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Carry on and Keep quiet when reporting on religion in China: GetReligion, March 9, 2014  April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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“Why does the press soft pedal links between terrorism and Islam?” was the question under discussion in this week’s edition of Crossroads, a Get Religion podcast produced in conjunction with Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues Etc host Todd Wilken.

“I don’t know why, but it does” — pretty well sums up the show. Last week’s Kunming terror attack, which left 29 dead and almost 150 injured, was our point of entry into the debate. In the media coverage of the Kunming incident I argued it was possible to see two divergent themes. Chinese press outlets were quick to label the incident as a terrorist attack. State officials were quoted describing the attack as terrorism, while eyewitness accounts called the knife-wielding assailants as terrorists. Yet the hand of government censorship could be seen in the Chinese press accounts as no mention was made of religion or politics.

Several Western press outlets were squeamish about using the word terrorism to describe the attack — placing it in quotes or allowing it to appear only in the words of Chinese government officials. However, the Western press did shine a light (though rather dimly) on areas the Chinese government sought to keep dark. They identified the attackers as members of the Uighar minority group from Northwest China and noted the on-going ethnic tension in that part of the country between the Uighars and Han Chinese. The Western press was not as one in reporting on the Muslim faith of the Uighars. Some outlets like the New York Times mentioned Islam at the top of their stories. The Associated Press placed it in the middle of their story. CNN in the last paragraph, while the Telegraph made no mention of it at all.

The Chinese government’s silence about religious strife I observed was predictable as it reflected a long standing policy of state control/accommodation of the major religious faiths in support of the Communist Party’s official goal of promoting a harmonioussociety.

The silence about Islam and terrorism from the Western press I could not readily explain without resorting to facile nostrums of political correctness or ignorance. The specialist literature has noted the links between radical Islam and Uighar separatism, while the first day reports in the Western press described the unusual killing style adopted by the terrorists — using knives and swords they attempted to strike at the necks of their victims to decapitate them (a hallmark of Islamic terrorism).

 

Western reporting from China is a delicate business. If you look too closely into some corners you will lose your visa and have to leave the country. Though I have never reported from China I know several members of the trade who have. One conversation I had several years ago focused on the relative silence about the role of religion in Chinese life found in Western press reports. Save for the occasional specialist stories about the House Church movement, we did not hear much about religion. Was China like Japan, I asked? A country where religion plays a much smaller role in civic life than in the US?

The answer I received (admittedly given whilst chatting in an airport bar in Africa, an environment not calculated for the deepest ruminations on the craft of reporting and religion I admit) was that it was a mug’s game to try to work in the religion angle in stories from China. You were likely to displease your hosts jeopardizing your access to sources (and even the country itself) while your editors in London were uninterested in the religion angle anyway. Why go to all that bother? Stick to politics, economics — be bold about corruption but don’t pick a fight in a battle you were not likely to win — was the sage advice I received.

Over the past ten years the internet has changed the mechanics of reporting in ways I could not have predicted. Maybe the old ways of the Fleet Street hack have passed into oblivion. Perhaps, but in the Kunming affair my sense of the story is that disinterest from the Western press and hostility from the Chinese government have closed a profitable avenue of investigation. Self-censorship is not always a deliberate act.

Silence about terrorism and Islam in the Kunming attack: GetReligion, March 5, 2014  April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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What was it about the murder of 29 men, women and children on Saturday at the Kunming train station that does not qualify make it an act of terrorism? And why is the press so shy about connecting the dots on this incident to the wider campaign being waged by Islamist terrorists? Can the word terrorism no longer be used in polite company?

The first news story I saw came from the state-run Xinhua News Agency which announced that on the night of March 1, 2014 a gang invaded the central waiting room of the Kunming train station in China’s Yunnan province. Armed with knives the attackers attacked people waiting for their trains and police officers, killing 28 and in jured 113 (the numbers were later revised to 29 dead and 143 wounded.)

Police shot five of the assailants dead. The identity of the attackers was not given, but the incident was described as:

an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack, according to the authorities.

The report stated the killers were dressed in black and attacked their victims with knives. Xinhua was able to quote eye witness accounts of the attack. saying:

Chen Guizhen, a 50-year-old woman, told Xinhua at the hospital that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. “Why are the terrorists so cruel? ” moaned Chen, holding her husband’s ID card in blood with her trembling hands.

So we have a group of black clad knife welding assailants rushing into a busy urban train station and randomly maiming and killing 172 people. The government describes it as a terrorist act and a witness calls the attackers terrorists. Let me go out on a limb and say the attackers were likely to have been terrorists.

Xinhua did not identify who the attackers were, but at the close of their story recounted two recent terrorist attacks. While not naming names, Xinhua implied the attack was the work of militants from northwest China’s Xinjiang province — the Muslim Uighar people.

In the first press reports many western news outlets were reticent in describing the attack as terrorism, or they placed the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in quotes either in the title or in the body of the story.

The New York Times report described the attack in terms usually reserved for a clash between groups. A “group of assailants wielding knives stormed into a railway station” and proceeded to kill and injure scores of travelers. The NY Times identifies the “assailants” as Uighars, citing local government sources, and states:

The attack, in Yunnan Province, was far from Xinjiang, and if carried out by members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority could imply that the volatile tensions between them and the government might be spilling beyond that restive region.

But the language of the story shifts. “The violence erupted …”;  “the attack would be the worst …”; “The latest attack appears …”; “After the slashing attack, President Xi Jinping of China said …” — why the reticence in using the word terror, terrorism, terrorist?

CNN was equally shy,writing:

Members of a separatist group from Xinjiang, in northwest China, are believed to have carried out the assault, authorities said. The report referred to them as “terrorists.”

The mention of Islam is pushed to the last paragraph of the story while CNN plays the trick of having the Chinese government use the word terrorist.

The circumlocutions were such that the People’s Daily — the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper — denounced Western news reports as biased for failing to describe the attack as an act of terrorism.

The international community strongly condemned this cruel attack, but the coverage of the incident by a few Western media organizations, including CNN, Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post was dishonest and appeared to be directed by ulterior motives. Emanating from such loud advocates of “the fight against terrorism”, the coverage was insulting and has led to widespread resentment in China.

There was extensive evidence at the crime scene to leave no doubt that the Kunming Railway station attack was nothing other than a violent terrorist crime. But regardless of this evidence, some western media organizations were unwilling to use the word “terrorism” in their coverage. CNN’s report on March 3 put the word “terrorists” in quotation marks, and offered the view that “mass knife attacks” are “not unprecedented” in China. The intention here was to associate this terrorist incident with a number of attacks that occurred in 2010 and 2012, all the more disgusting because these attacks happened at schools, they were conducted by individuals who were clearly mentally disturbed, and their victims were children. None of the perpetrators had any political connections, or any political motives. The Associated Press report used the term “described by the authorities as” to qualify their use of the word “terrorists”. The New York Times and the Washington Post called the terrorists “attackers”.

The People’s Daily article is not above reproach, however. It ignores the religious aspect of the attack and argues that the relations between the majority Han Chinese and minority Uighars are good.

In their depictions of the background to the attack, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all ignored the significant social progress that has been made in Xinjing, instead focusing on the problem of “relations between China’s ethnic groups”

Making an editorial decision to omit the t-word by Western press agencies has stirred up the Chinese government. But where is the religion ghost? Is the demographic fact that most Uighars are Muslims sufficient to start the Islamist terrorist theme for this story? No, that is not enough.

However there is evidence of an Islamist terror connection based on how the attack unfolded that many religion reporters would have picked up from the eyewitness accounts. The first day report from the Associated Press reported that one witness saw one of the killers slash at the neck of one victim. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported:

A 20-year-old university student, Wu Yuheng, says the attackers tried to target people’s heads. One had swiped his long knife and just nicked him on the scalp.

“I was terrified … they attacked us like crazy swordsmen, and mostly they went for the head and the shoulders, those parts of the body to kill,” he said, lying on a hospital bed.

In the Spring 2005 issue of the Middle East Quarterly Timothy Furnish published an article entitled “Beheading in the name of Islam”.

Decapitation has become the latest fashion. In many ways, it sends terrorism back to the future. Unlike hijackings and car bombs, ritual beheading has a long precedent in Islamic theology and history.

Furnish argues that decapitation is one of the hallmarks of modern Islamist terrorism. In investigating these attacks, should not reporters have pushed this envelope? In all of the press reports I have read I have not seen any questions about what the killers said when they were on the rampage. Where they silent? Where they screaming unintelligible words? Were they shouting “Allahu Akbar”?

Asking whether the past actions of separatist extremist groups with suspected links to militant Islam and the unique way in which this attack was carried out point to a religion motivation in the attacks?

Perhaps that is asking too much. If the Western press is uncomfortable describing such attacks as terrorism, how can they even begin to be even less politically incorrect and look to the links to militant Islam?

Interview: Issues Etc., March 7, 2014 March 8, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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Here is an to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 7 March 2014.

1. Media Coverage of Islam – George Conger, 3/7/14

George Conger of GetReligion.org

Podcast: Download (Duration: 21:04 — 8.6MB)

GetReligion