‘Why haven’t I heard about this?’ is a question Falun Gong practitioners and their supporters have heard people outside China ask again and again as they share with others the details of the scale and brutality of the campaign against the group. In this piece, Leeshai Lemish looks at the coverage of Falun Gong in international media and why it remains today one of the worst human rights crises you’ve never heard of.
“Which is the world’s largest group of prisoners of conscience – that is, peopled jailed for their beliefs or views?” Few educated media consumers in the West know the correct answer. It is Falun Gong adherents jailed in China; and it’s not even close.
Various calculations by human rights organizations, recently corroborated by a study conducted by Ethan Gutmann and I over the last two years, estimate that the number of Falun Gong practitioners currently jailed in China is at least as high as 200,000, possibly much higher. The number of Tibetan prisoners of conscience believed to be jailed, according to a Tibetan representative we interviewed in Taipei, is roughly 5,000. There is a growing, unknown number, of House Christians jailed in the People’s Republic, but they are still far behind the Falun Gong figures.
Why do so few people, including academics, know of this fact and what role have media played in shaping public perceptions of Falun Gong? These are some of the questions this paper sets out to investigate.
It turns out that one can be a regular reader of the New York Times, for instance, and never hear about Falun Gong. Others may be under the impression that the “crackdown on Falun Gong” was something that took place a decade ago, and is no longer an issue. And yet others may immediately think of Falun Gong as being some weird, wacky group, its victims of persecution perhaps not so worthy of our sympathy. All these perceptions are rooted in the media coverage patterns detailed below.
There has been an ongoing debate between religious elites and believers on the one hand, and religion journalists on the other about the fairness and accuracy with which religions are depicted in media. The former group claims that religions and their followers are regularly portrayed in negative terms, without the contextualization necessary for readers to understand the beliefs and behaviors discussed. The latter contend that coverage is only fair, balanced, and accurate.
A similar debate is taking place with regards to press coverage of Falun Gong. On the one hand, Falun Gong adherents and supporters claim Western media coverage has been unfair in it’s portrayal of the group and the persecution it faces – that media downplay documented atrocities, often belittle the group and its beliefs, and give too much credence to unsubstantiated claims emanating from Beijing. Journalists I have spoken to, on the other hand, claim that they are only being objective in allowing both parties to the conflict an equal opportunity to present their views, and that their coverage of Falun Gong is balanced and accurate.
Coverage of Falun Gong, therefore, is an important case study in the larger overall debate over how Western media report on religions, and new religious groups in particular. It is also an important case study because the stakes are so high, considering how many people’s lives are involved. Indeed, my research has found that Western press coverage often bears concrete consequences for the conditions of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners in China.
[FDIC Editor’s note: background sections on Falun Gong and severe human rights abuses suffered by practitioners skipped for this abbreviated version of the article]
How was all this reported in the Western press?
To study the ways in which this was covered in the Western press, I analyzed 1,852 articles on Falun Gong from 1999 to 2007 in seven English-language newspapers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, London Guardian, The Australian) and three wire services (The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse). The articles were examined using basic media studies quantitative analysis techniques that identified key words, sources of news as they appeared in the headlines and opening sentences, and the number of articles over time. What follows are a few of the key findings.
(1) - Compassion fatigue: Coverage of Falun Gong has decreased as the torture and killing of adherents have increased.
This first graph shows the total number of news articles per half year about Falun Gong that appeared in the seven leading newspapers examined.
As we can see, while there was relatively strong interest in the story when it first emerged, Western press gradually began ignoring it as time went by. This was not, however, because the campaign had eased. On the contrary, the persecution was escalating as the press was turning away.
This graph shows, in blue, the number of Associated Press articles per year that mentioned Falun Gong at least once. In red are the number of documented deaths of Falun Gong practitioners (according to www.faluninfo.net) as a result of the campaign. Similar patterns were found in each of the media studied.
As we can see, at the same time that the documented number of Falun Gong practitioners’ deaths from torture in custody increased, the number of articles in the Western press (in this case, in the Associated Press) rapidly decreased.
(2) - The CCP has been more influential than Falun Gong or human rights organizations in determining what gets reported and how it is framed.
This study asked: What were the sources of news that sparked articles about Falun Gong? To determine this, the sources as identified in the headline or lead sentence of an article were examined. If an article headline was: “Falun Gong Infocenter: Three more practitioners tortured to death,” the article would be categorized as having been sparked by Falun Gong. If it instead read: “Xinhua news says Falun Gong crushed,” the article would be identified as being sparked by the Chinese government.
The following graph shows the number of articles in which the Chinese government (CG), Falun Gong (FLG), and human rights organizations (HR), respectively, were each cited as the main source of information in the headlines or opening paragraphs of AFP and Reuters releases.
As we can see, an article about Falun Gong is more than twice as likely to be sparked by, and often framed around public statements or actions by the Chinese government, than by those of Falun Gong or human rights organizations. This is not because Falun Gong failed to provide material for the media. The Infocenter has put out regular press releases since 1999, and I have attended press events organized by Falun Gong practitioners in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington to which not a single journalist showed up.
(3) - Western press has been adopting pejorative, loaded terms to describe Falun Gong, terms often rooted in Chinese state propaganda.
For example, in AFP and Reuters articles, the CCP’s “evil cult” label for Falun Gong appears in most pieces (78%). To the wires’ credit, the term is almost always attributed to the CCP, as in: “The Chinese government considers Falun Gong an evil cult.” This was not the case in other media outlets. Newspapers like the New York Times often dropped the “evil” and still referred to Falun Gong as a “cult,” this time directly using the journalist’s own voice. Such labels even appeared in headlines. Yet there was no discussion of why Falun Gong should be labeled as such, whether such a term was accurate, or what the source of this label was.
In fact, the term that the CCP uses in Chinese to discredit Falun Gong translates more accurately as “heterodox religion.” But, apparently with an eye toward influencing opinions in the West, in its English discourse on Falun Gong, the CCP chose the term “evil cult” instead, with all its negative connotations. The CCP has tried to compare Falun Gong to Aum Shinrikyo, the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and other groups popularly identified in the West as destructive cults. If the unquestioning reproduction of this term by Western journalists is any indication, the label was one of the CCP’s most brilliant PR moves.
Journalists have told me that they aim to write “balanced” pieces about Falun Gong in which both sides get a fair chance to air their views. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether such a goal is ethically or journalistically responsible when human rights atrocities are involved, I examined whether journalists were able to achieve such a balance. To do this, I studied how often each of the sides was given a chance to respond to the other side’s accusations. The study found that when journalists cite the CCP’s primary accusation - that adherents have died from refusing medicine or suicide (thus justifying the ban), Falun Gong gets to respond 17.9% of the time. When journalists cite Falun Gong’s main accusation – that adherents are being tortured to death, the CCP gets to respond 50.2% of the time. That is, journalists are nearly three times more likely to give the CCP a chance to defend itself.
It is also worth noting that the CCP’s claims about Falun Gong adherents posing danger to themselves have not been corroborated by any external source, and at least in several cases the claims appear quite dubious. The torture and killing claims, on the other hand, have been well-documented by multiple human rights organizations as well as annual [U.S.] State Department and United Nations reports. Journalists, however, almost never identify the CCP’s claim as not having been independently confirmed; but when citing claims that Falun Gong practitioners are being tortured, they regularly add the caveat that such claims are “alleged” and could not be verified.
Analysis - familiar patterns
At first glance, this study’s findings might appear quite shocking. Western media turned away from the story just as the human rights abuses were increasing, and continued to ignore the persecution even as torture and killing spiraled out of control. Moreover, the perpetrator, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, was most often the one dictating what gets reported, and also influenced the language with which the very group it is persecuting is described.
Yet from the perspective of media studies literature, these findings are not surprising. Studies have long shown that governmental sources are given much more credence than community-based groups, and that government actions or statements are considered more newsworthy. This study also corroborates previous findings concerning the difficulty media have in reporting human rights abuses and distant suffering, often manifesting as “compassion fatigue” and lack of contextualization (see, for example, a 2002 report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy).
For our purposes here, as a case study of how new religions are treated in the Western press, this study also corroborates previous findings. First, it supports the findings of Stuart A. Wright (1997) that “news stories on unpopular or marginal religions frequently are predicated on unsubstantiated allegations or government actions based on faulty or weak evidence.” This we saw in the Western press’ unqualified reproduction of the CCP’s various claims about Falun Gong aimed at justifying its campaign to wipe out the group.
The study further supports the findings of Harvey Hill, John Hickman, and Joel McLendon (2001) that “new religious movements are consistently described in pejorative language.” Thus the more esoteric practices of a long-established religion might be described in terms such as “traditionalist,” while those of a new group will be depicted, and in the case of Falun Gong sometimes directly labeled, as “weird,” “bizarre,” and “wacky.”
The most notable example is the questionable use of the word “cult” to describe Falun Gong. Regardless of how scholars of religions may use the term (and in this case scholars of religions were not consulted and their opinions were rarely cited by journalists), there is little doubt that the term, as popularly used, carries very negative connotations. Yet is it accurate in this case?
Falun Gong is a large group with tens of millions of practitioners, people who hold ordinary jobs of all varieties, have families and maintain “normal” lives. There is no isolation from society and Falun Gong involves no financial or property commitment or restrictions. Perhaps most importantly, Falun Gong has no history of violence, even after a decade under persecution.
Both John Dart (1997) and Judith M. Buddenbaum (1998) have warned of the media’s casual use of this term, and its negative, often violent connotations. The labeling of Falun Gong originated with the CCP and Western media often swallowed the bait and, in effect, played the role of assisting the CCP in discrediting and marginalizing the group internationally, casting it with a label that, once affixed, is difficult to remove.
In Falun Gong’s case, several additional factors contributed to this phenomenon, and are worth considering briefly:
1. Unfamiliarity with Chinese traditions of self-cultivation systems. It is sufficiently challenging for Western journalists to grapple with the beliefs of new religious groups emerging from the Judeo-Christian traditions, but Falun Gong emerged from an unfamiliar Chinese tradition of self-cultivation. Few journalists knew much about qigong and its various practices and phenomena, even less were they familiar with Taoist hygiene disciplines, or Buddhist energy-transformation concepts. Within the context of these traditions, including practices like Tibetan Buddhism, Falun Gong’s doctrine and metaphysical descriptions are hardly eccentric.
2. CCP obstruction and access difficulty. One of the most concrete challenges for journalists working in China has been obstruction by the Communist Party’s security apparatuses. Journalist, like Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of the BBC, have been followed, detained, and even physically assaulted for pursuing the Falun Gong story. Journalists have no access to labor camps, jails, or detention centers except for rare guided tours to Potemkin camps. A conscientious journalist may further have serious qualms about meeting with Falun Gong practitioners in China, given the risk to the interviewees’ lives such meetings pose. There are too many examples of practitioners who were jailed, even tortured and killed, for speaking with foreign reporters or human rights workers.
3. Self-censorship. Media professionals are well aware that Falun Gong is one of the most taboo and sensitive subjects in China today. Journalists have told me they have a “black-out” policy of not touching Falun Gong news. Reporters and editors may choose to stay away from pursuing the Falun Gong story due to personal considerations, including losing access to government functions, being harassed, or having their visa revoked. At a corporate level, media conglomerates are seeking access to the Chinese market or wish to see their websites unblocked in the mainland and to develop cooperation projects. They know that one story about Falun Gong can have their magazines removed from Chinese newsstands (as in the case of Time) or they might be taken off the air (as happened to the BBC).
In spite of these difficulties, a handful of journalists – like Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal and Philip Pan of the Washington Post - have repeatedly shown that quality investigative reporting into the story is, if difficult, possible.
So what does all this mean? For Falun Gong, under circumstances of persecution, these media coverage patterns have real human costs. Labor camp survivors have told me they noticed a real correlation between the degree to which the persecution they faced was exposed overseas and the treatment they received. Some have described all of a sudden being treated better in detention, being transferred to a better cell and no longer being tortured. Only after they were released did they realize that the change took place at exactly the same time that their case was publicized abroad.
Perhaps a more concrete example is that of asylum seekers. Falun Gong refugees are seeking political asylum around the world. Yet several countries, like Canada, the U.K., and Australia have nearly deported practitioners back to China, saying they do not believe these people face serious risk of persecution. One can imagine that if immigration workers and judges have not seen any reports about the persecution of Falun Gong in years, they might easily imagine danger no longer exists. In several such cases, practitioners have indeed been repatriated; upon arrival in China, they were immediately sent to a labor camp to be tortured again.
For the Chinese Communist Party, their campaign has been a lesson in international PR. Unlike the Cultural Revolution era during the 60s and 70s, today’s CCP cares about its international image. During the period in which Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted in China, Party leaders have successfully sought access to international organizations like WTO and won trophies like the Olympics and red carpet treatment in foreign capitals. They care about hiding atrocities and wish to justify domestic policies to foreign audiences. Through the campaign against Falun Gong, Beijing has learned that foreign media can be manipulated.
For the general public, the lesson is that when it comes to new religious groups, not only can official government sources not be trusted, but we must be skeptical of mainstream media as well.
Leeshai Lemish has been writing about Falun Gong since 2001 and is currently conducting research with Ethan Gutmann for an upcoming book about the persecution of the group and its resistance.
The full version of the article is available at http://www.cesnur.org/2009/slc_lemish.htm