In the present Uyghur crisis, media are often not the solution but the problem.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper prepared for the author’s presentation and discussion at the November 9, 2022, panel “International Civil Society and Media Responses to the Genocide in East Turkistan,” during the International Uyghur Forum in Brussels, Belgium, on November 9-10, 2022, hosted by the World Uyghur Congress, HASENE International, International Union of East Turkistan Organizations, with the co-sponsorship of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Society for Threatened Peoples, CCJO René Cassin, FAIR International, and the International Society for Human Rights.
Media are what their Latin name says: means to connect two otherwise distant terms. Means of mass communication bridge sources and people through what we call “news,” literally “novelties.” Media bear a high responsibility: they are means (with others) that lead to knowledge and then to action.
So, accuracy should be the first duty of the media. This has of course to do with truth. Working in the media, with the media, and through the media requires high moral standards and the will to search for truth.
This is totally evident when it comes to the Uyghur crisis, and more in general to the Chinese Communist Party’s misdeeds. Media are, or should be, the means through which the general public knows about these topics, leading politicians and ultimately governments to act.
An Italian social commentator, the late Giovanni Cantoni (1938–2020), used wittily to say that if your history is wrong, your politics will be wrong as well. This is surely true, as it is true that those who receive bad or wrong information get distorted ideas on history and current affairs, and consequently act badly or wrongly in the public sphere.
Today, facts and comments on the Uyghur crisis are easily available through many sources. Most of this information is of high quality. There are reports, pictures, and videos; there are testimonies; there are political acts and pieces of legislation; there are entire dedicated web sites. Everyone can access this truth for free. This shows that NGOs, civil society, and researchers are doing a major work in bringing accuracy to the public, sometime even at a scholarly level. It also demonstrates that many journalists perform their duty with professionalism, conscience, and morality.
But one thing that does not cease to puzzle me every single day is that, in spite of this huge amount of important and well-researched information and public action, including by parliaments, the general public still does not know much about the Uyghur crises, or even about the Uyghurs themselves. Most importantly, too many politicians and governments do not act in the right way on this quite serious problem.
Why? I work as a journalist: so, my initial, partial answer today focuses on my colleagues in the media.
The first half of my answer today is that basically many media miss the point. This is a polite way to put a daring question. What I in fact mean is that too many of my colleagues just shamefully repeat one version or another of the propaganda of the CCP. This brings discredit to the journalistic profession but is not an exaggeration. “Bitter Winter” often reports about this complicity between some Western journalists (and even fake journalists) and the Chinese propaganda machine. At the end of the day, what we get here is some corrupted media people that on the uneven days of a week undo what other serious journalists try to achieve with information on the even days of the same week.
The second half of my answer of today is a more nuanced side of this same story. I point here to another form of unprofessional attitude common in media. Some journalists just renounce, out of laziness and sloppy habits, to challenge the ruling elite. I think this is the most important single point.
Repeating that media are the watchdog of democracy may seem a platitude. But platitudes often retain a grain of important truth at their core. A free society is based on a clear distinction among the powers of the state, the consent of the governed, the rule of law, a healthy and vital civil society, as well as a free press.
Now, the press is free if and when it challenges the powers that be. In face of the Uyghur crisis and the misdeeds of the CCP, a real journalist should never be tired to raise questions, to ask for more, to want details, to look for answers even if it costs labour and time and homework. Independent media should challenge governments and politicians every single day. They should systematically question trade agreements between whatever country and China, cooperation pacts with Beijing, partnerships with the Chinese neo-post-national-communist regime in all fields.
True journalism should raise the price daily, calling the CCP-led regime to respond clearly and immediately on its violations of natural law and human rights, on the real state of religious liberty, on the fate of threatened cultural identities. Newspapers and news-services, especially in the West, should be filled with articles demanding truth from the Chinese regime, and asking democratic politicians why and how and what are the terms of the agreements their respective countries have signed with the tyrannical government of China, which has transformed East Turkestan/Xinjiang into a gigantic, open-air reeducation camp. In spite of the good work done, we still see too little of this.
I come from a country, Italy, whose government signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with China in March 2019. In spite of many promises by subsequent governments, it hasn’t been neither revised nor (as it should be) cancelled yet. Practically, it was and still is a blank check given by Italy to China at the expenses of my homeland and taxpayers. That Agreement has of course bound Italian politics but has also compelled Italian media, including Italian state media, to literally buy the most blatant propaganda fabricated by the Chinese regime. Things have partially changed recently, but is still largely a functioning shame.
Now, guess why many in Italy still say that using the term “genocide” for the treatment that the CCP reserves for Uyghurs is an unbearable exaggeration; that things all over China are instead transparent and good, even ideal; that independent media like “Bitter Winter” and others lie when they denounce the systematic breaking of Uyghur families, the many instances of rape, out of hatred, of Uyghur women, the staggering policy of sterilization imposed on Uyghur mothers by the CCP, the shameful practice of organ harvesting that the CCP is lately bringing to the Uyghur people too, the concentration and slave labor camps where Uyghurs are sent, the systematic religious persecution of the Uyghur people and the vicious war against Uyghur cultural identity, and indeed all things Uyghur, that the “neo-Maoist for the New Era” President Xi Jinping is waging.
Guess why politicians are shy, guess why governments still ignore the problem, guess why policies are inadequate.
In his 1981 Inaugural Address, American President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) said: “In this present crises, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Let me paraphrase that great statesman: in the present Uyghur crisis, media are often not the solution; media are the problem.
As long as they remain a problem, the Uyghur crisis would stall because the civil society would have an excuse for its uncivil ignorance. Governments and politicians, who potentially may hold the key to a solution, will not be properly poked and prodded. Today, November 9, marks the 33rd anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It is the right occasion for many media professionals to wonder why, with the iron curtain gone, the bamboo curtain is still there, and ask themselves whether they bear any responsibility for that.