Rights Groups Denounce NY Times Report for ‘Open Display of Religious Bigotry’

Rights Groups Denounce NY Times Report for ‘Open Display of Religious Bigotry’
The New York Times building is seen on June 30, 2020 in New York City. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He

Two human rights groups have condemned a recent New York Times report for what they described as an “open display of religious bigotry” against the spiritual group Falun Gong, which is severely persecuted in China.

U.S.-based nonprofits Lantos Foundation and 21 Wilberforce said a July 4 New York Times article unfairly singled out developers of an internet firewall circumvention tool, Ultrasurf, due to their personal beliefs in Falun Gong. Adherents in China have been persecuted by the communist regime for the past 21 years.

The article highlighted a recent change of leadership at the Open Technology Fund (OTF). The internet freedom group is overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a federal agency that also supervises government-funded media outlets such as Voice of America. Citing experts, the article authors suggested that circumvention tools such as Ultrasurf were not suitable for funding from OTF.

“In describing tools used to circumvent the internet firewall in closed countries, the reporters made no fewer than 9 references to the personal beliefs and religious practices of two developers,” the joint statement said. “Though several other technology companies, NGOs, and other individuals were written about, none of their religious affiliations were mentioned.”

The nonprofits said that if the report had applied the same treatment to developers who were Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish, “there would have been an outcry, and rightly so.”

“Yet the Times’ denigrating coverage of Falun Gong is no different and should be condemned in equal terms,” they said. “Choosing a small, persecuted religion to single out does not make the bigotry any more palatable.”

They said that the way the article was framed implied that the developers’ faith in Falun Gong had a “direct bearing on the legitimacy of the tools that they have developed and whether they deserve to be among those that receive funds from the U.S. Government.”

The groups said that while they welcomed open debate on the merits of technology aimed at advancing internet freedom, “it remains entirely unacceptable, and frankly un-American, to dismiss or disqualify or even describe an individual or product largely on the basis of religious affiliation or belief.”

“We would never have imagined such a lapse in journalistic ethics from America’s self-proclaimed ‘newspaper of record,’” the statement said.

Both nonprofits advocate for technology to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall,” the regime’s massive internet censorship apparatus, so that Chinese citizens may access unfiltered information about the CCP’s abuses.

In a June 9 letter to the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the foundation’s president, Katrina Lantos Swett, proposed dedicating $20 million of federal funding to the censorship circumvention initiatives Freegate, Lantern, Psiphon, and Ultrasurf.

Their statement in response to The New York Times was released on July 20, which coincided with the 21st anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party launching its campaign of violence against Falun Gong.

Since then, millions of practitioners have been detained in Chinese labor camps, prisons, and brainwashing centers, according to estimates by the Falun Dafa Information Center. Inside these facilities, adherents are tortured and abused in an attempt to coerce them into giving up their faith. More than 4,000 practitioners are confirmed to have died from torture, according to Minghui.org, an online clearinghouse for information on the persecution of Falun Gong, although the actual figure is likely to be far greater given the tight controls on information in China.

The United States on July 20 called for an immediate end to the Chinese regime’s persecution and unconditional release of all detained practitioners, joining hundreds of officials from dozens of countries in their condemnation of the regime’s actions.

The New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The nonprofits said the New York Times article was not an isolated case of religious bigotry against practitioners of Falun Gong.

“In recent interviews with several reporters regarding the future of the Open Technology Fund, the same inappropriate questions about the developers’ religious beliefs have been raised time and again—though occasionally strong pushback against such bigotry has encouraged journalists not to include this angle in their reporting,” they said.

“This has clearly become part of the narrative being pushed, and bought in to, across the journalistic world.”

The advocates said they have also witnessed over the years “disparaging remarks about certain developers’ religious affiliation” by U.S. officials who control funding for internet freedom initiatives.

They called on those in positions of power, such as editors and policymakers, to “take an unwavering stand against this form of intolerance.”

“To allow such prejudice to persist against a small and persecuted spiritual movement will erode this nation’s longstanding commitment to ensuring that a person’s religious beliefs cannot be used as a justification to delegitimize them or deny them opportunities,” the statement read.

“We must not allow efforts to open the internet across the globe to be marred by religious discrimination at home.”

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.