‘Propaganda Team’: Beijing Muzzles Reporters in Wuhan

March 24, 2020 Updated: April 2, 2020

The Chinese regime has been keeping close tabs on state media reporters since the start of the CCP virus outbreak to make sure their reporting is in sync with official narratives, a former reporter told The Epoch Times.

Canada-based Zhang Zhenyu, a former reporter with ifeng, a Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing media, revealed Beijing’s detailed instructions to about 300 Chinese state media reporters who were dispatched to the outbreak ground zero of Wuhan since the early stages of the outbreak in January. The revelations were based on his sources working in the industry in China.

He said the top priority of these on-the-ground reporters was to not report any negative news.

Propaganda Team’

Across China, every major state-run news agency has sent reporters to join the press corp in Wuhan. They are to stay in the city until the outbreak is over, according to Zhang. The nature of their role is so clear that internally, the reporters call themselves the “propaganda team,” he said.

Zhang said the regime has stipulated strict rules to keep the reporters in check.

The regime’s propaganda department has ordered reporters to follow the lead of Xinhua, China News Service, and People’s Daily, the three top Chinese state-run news outlets, according to Zhang.

The reporters are not permitted to leave the group or disclose their whereabouts to anyone outside. No one is allowed to act on their own discretion, he said. Their schedules are loaded with pre-scripted interviews, while photos for each report are carefully screened by authorities for approval.

“The so-called press corp is a string tied around every reporter’s neck. … You have to go wherever you are asked to go,” Zhang said in an interview. “They eat and live together, and act in concert, monitoring each other—it’s basically a prisoner’s dilemma.”

Normally in China, if a reporter treads the wrong political line, they would have to write a self-criticism and the company would usually act as a buffer to protect the reporter, Zhang said. However, by rounding the reporters together, the regime effectively strips off this protective layer and may directly punish anyone for veering off track.

“In the past, we would escape under such circumstances, but in a place like Wuhan, you can’t run away even if you wanted to. In plain terms, they have become pawns in this press corp.”

Beijing’s Directives

Beijing’s Cyberspace Administration, the regime’s chief internet censorship agency, issued roughly five guidelines to the reporters, Zhang said, citing his connections from China.

First, they needed to shift the focus away from the severity of the outbreak and emphasize how the city is heading back to the state of normalcy.

The reporters were also told not to report new cases to avoid stoking public fears, Zhang said. Instead, they would step up the coverage on how the outbreak is worsening overseas to direct the attention elsewhere, and to showcase how the regime’s way of governance is superior to democratic systems abroad.

Further, an “alarm system” has been put in place to filter out sensitive content about the outbreak on the internet, he added. A recently leaked document from Hubei Province showed that officials had hired at least 1,600 censors in the region to remove any critical remarks online in real-time.

Ahead of their trip to Wuhan, the reporters had been warned not to violate the terms as any issues that arise from their mistakes would be a matter of national security, Zhang said.

The reporters did not dare to discuss their work even with family, knowing that their phones are likely tapped, according to Zhang.

Controlling the Narrative, From Beginning to End

After its initial cover-up failed and the outbreak spiraled out of control, the regime began to lock down cities from Jan. 23, a drastic measure that ignited public outrage, Zhang said.

The Chinese Communist Party’s two objectives, Zhang said, are to shift responsibility and turn the outbreak into an opportunity to glorify itself.

He said Beijing News, a state-run media, received a “stern warning” for slightly transgressing official talking points in its reporting of the swiftly-constructed makeshift hospitals—yet another topic handpicked by authorities.

“The Party does not solve the problem, but rather attempts to get rid of those who raised the questions—this is dictated by its system,” he said. “And to solve the problem means to control public opinion.”

The regime has also praised state media reporters for their coverage of the outbreak.

Liao Jun, a reporter for state media Xinhua, was among the first to cover the police admonition of Li Wenliang, one of the nation’s first doctors to warn about the danger of the virus.

She also has over 500 articles under her name, many of which repeated the regime’s claims that the virus was containable and not contagious during the early days. On March 8, Beijing hailed Liao as a heroine who “goes against the tide.”

“It’s not hard to imagine how many people are behind her to help churn out such innutritious articles,” Zhang said.

He also decried the regime’s persistent, aggressive disinformation campaign to portray a false impression that China is safer than the rest of the world, thus luring the overseas Chinese to return to China.

On March 24, China Daily featured an interview with a Bangladeshi student studying in the Wuhan who “volunteered” to stay in the city to combat the outbreak. He called China “the best and safest place in the world” and said the virus “is not related to China.”

The Trump administration recently designated China Daily as well as four other state-run outlets including Xinhua and China Global Television Network as “foreign missions,” calling them out as “explicit propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party.”

As a result of this designation, the administration slashed the number of Chinese staff allowed to work at these media outlets’ offices in the United States.

In retaliation, the Chinese regime announced it would expel U.S. journalists based in China who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the time said he regretted the regime’s decision to “further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct free press operations, which, frankly would be really good for the Chinese people … in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives.”

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