MASSIMO INTROVIGNE | BITTER WINTER
A report by the International Federation of Journalists reveals how China manipulates the media about COVID-19 (and Xinjiang). Italy is the worst case.
Something extraordinary is happening in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. When it began, all the world knew that it had originated in Wuhan, and that Chinese delays in telling the truth had been largely responsible for its horrible death toll. How it had started was unclear, but the possibility of an unintentional mistake in one of Wuhan’s laboratories studying viruses transmitted from bats to humans was seriously considered.
After more than one year, while all our countries have suffered thousands of deaths and damages to the economy it will take decades to overcome, we have almost forgotten that the virus came from Wuhan. China has been successful in selling to the world preposterous alternative theories placing the origins of the virus in the United States, Norway, or Italy. As for the laboratory hypothesis, although regarded as a serious possibility by authoritative research centers such as the French National Center for Scientific Research,if you try to mention it you will be excluded from polite company as “conspirationist,” and your posts may even be cancelled by Facebook or Twitter.
Of course, this happened because there is a pro-China lobby that represents prominent business interests. The same businesses that have their main markets in China own newspapers, magazines, and TV networks. However, a report published this month by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), tells us that there is more.
Belt and Road agreements are often confidential, but we live in a world where keeping secrets is difficult. For instance, the Belt and Road memorandum between China and Italy was leaked to the Financial Times and, as of this day, is still available online. It is not easy to find, but we commented it in Bitter Winter. Other Belt and Road agreements remain confidential, but we have all reasons to believe that the one signed with Italy is a variation on a common template. 140 countries are now part of Belt and Road, including 18 countries of the European Union.
The IFJ report mentions that the Italian Belt and Road agreements “included memoranda of understanding between China Media Group and a number of Italian outlets, including RAI and [the privately-owned] Mediaset broadcasters. The state-run news agency ANSA signed an accord with China’s state media agency Xinhua to launch the Xinhua Italian Service. This has translated into Ansa running fifty Xinhua stories a day on its news wire, with Xinhua taking editorial responsibility for the content while ANSA serves as a tool of distribution.” Perhaps a few words deserve a second reading: ANSA, the main Italian wire agency on which many Italian media depend, runs fifty stories a day prepared by the Chinese regime’s news agency Xinhua. ANSA does not take any “editorial responsibility” for them, which means that it simply distributes what the Chinese feed to it.
“The agreements have also led to Italian television stations airing Chinese documentaries.” “Chinese media outlets, the IFJ report continues, [are] offering content tailored for the Italian market for free. One example, mentioned by a journalist, hints at the success of this strategy, ‘They asked us to give more space to the New Year’s speech of President Xi Jinping. They gave it to us for free, translated directly into Italian. And we broadcast it, of course, not at the best time.’”
The predictable result was an Italian “‘info-demic,’ with fake news and rumors circulating faster than actual information about the virus.” Incredibly, some Italian media even circulated Chinese stories claiming that the virus had originated in Italy.
Italy still maintains independent media that reject the Chinese Communist Party propaganda, no matter whether it comes from ANSA or is nicely packaged. The two other case studies of Belt and Road countries in the IFJ report, Serbia and Tunisia, reveal much weaker defenses.
IFJ notes that the system was mobilized to whitewash China of any responsibility about the COVID, making it on the contrary into a virtuous example of good practices for containing the epidemic. But, once in place, the system is also used to publish China-friendly news on Xinjiang and other issues.
Those in Italy and elsewhere who believed that Belt and Road memorandums were only about selling more tomatoes to the Chinese were, in the best-case scenario, badly misinformed, in the worst, accomplices of a devious Chinese strategy.