Friday 27 January 2012

"The Persian Paradox"

Currently in Helsinki on business, about which more anon, but in the meantime I cannot recommend enough this interview with Wang Fengbo, a former editor at Deutsche Welle, over at JR's Place. Money Quote:

Q - Let’s suppose the Welle takes this approach: advocating human rights, becoming very explicit about human rights violations in China at times, and maybe this, too, would offend many Chinese listeners. This would – if my guesswork is correct – still spell rather reduced traffic on the Welle’s Chinese website. But you can’t make traffic the only criterion, can you? Isn’t there a risk of losing your own way as a broadcaster, if you keep toning down your message until the audience is satisfied?

A - I really love this question! For this is the question we, the former online colleagues, have discussed a thousand times! We are usually already one step closer to an answer if we have raised the question. The problem of the Chinese department since the later months of 2008 has been that you risk your “political correctness” if you dare to ask which appoach serves the goal of DW better.

Furthermore I think we shall distinguish advocacy journalism from advocacy of human rights. To say that I am not a fan of advocacy journalism is not to say I am against advocating human rights. That is a big difference. This is rather a question of the path to goal, not the goal itself.

I don’t doubt that DW has a mission to advocate human rights, comparable to the so-called value-oriented foreign policy of the federal government of Germany. But does it necessarily mean that you must do this by not caring about your website traffic anymore? If you have zero traffic, how could you then promote your great values?

. . . . .

This is something I call the “Persian-paradox”, in some joking way. I was told by a colleague about how the Persian language department of DW has responded to such kinds of questions. [...] During the protest wave around 2009 in Iran, they firstly achieved a relatively high record of visits, but this should have made them feel uneasy. And days later the Persian website of DW was blocked in Iran and they should have felt a great release by telling around in House of DW the good news: “we are also blocked!”

I cannot tell if the story is true. But I do believe, be it just a fiction, it can best illustrate the dilemma or paradox of DW. I guess the logic behind this should be: If you are not blocked yet, you are not sufficiently politically correct. The compulsory logical conclusion out of this state of mind is a clear one: The DW [outlets] can [only be proved] morally good enough by zero traffic from their target-countries. Isn’t this a new form of cold-war mindset? Shall DW be satisfied with the role as a monologue-talker?"
(emphasis added)

Of course when even people like Shaun Rein find that their works are refused distribution in China you can ask if it is all that easy to judge what will get you blocked or not, but it is worth asking what the point of broadcasting things that will be blocked is when you are trying to reach the Chinese public.

1 comment:

justrecently said...

I seem to remember that there was talk about taking the BBC's Chinese website offline, some two or three years ago, given that it wasn't accessible from China anyway. I'm not sure how seriously this was discussed then - it was before several big traditional broadcasters reduced their shortwave broadcasts instead, and actually rather emphasized their online platforms -, but I felt back then that even if there is no access to the BBC's Chinese site (or any foreign broadcaster's website) from most of China, such a site should continue to exist, to be read by overseas Chinese, and by readers from Hong Kong and Macau.

It's important to make high-quality offers. If that's countered with censorship, so be it. In the eyes of many, Beijing only slaps its own "face" in such a case. (Public diplomacy, in such a case, isn't win-win, but win-lose, and the gains made by the broadcaster are of course limited.) But there is no alternative to shortwave anyway, in my view. Websites can only be an additional offer. Only shortwave is sufficiently unpredictable. Once in a while, a frequency can be heard clearly here in Europe, but not in China as the target area, and sometimes, it's just the other way round.

There is no strength in (listener) numbers, when it comes to China. The number of Chinese who feel the need to listen to foreign sources defines the mission, and that will most probably only be a small number these days.

As far as that's concerned, I think my opinion probably differs from Mr. Wang's, and from yours - maybe fundamentally, maybe only by some shades. I'm not into the Persian paradox myself, either. However, Zhou Derong, one of Deutsche Welle's defenders in 2008, also suggested that DW wouldn't be blocked in China if the Chinese department's critics were right. That would be another Persian paradox, just the other way round.

As Mr. Wang says, it is legitimate - and it must be possible - to discuss the degree of flexibility which may be called for, and I'm inclined to believe that this hasn't been possible at Deutsche Welle's Chinese department during the past three or four years. That's counter-productive, because you can't have a dialog without at least listening to what your readers have to say, and to reply to them (which doesn't necessarily imply that you heed their advice). To allege that journalistic standards may get compromised simply because you discuss issues is about as paranoid as the firewall itself.

But the degree to which a website is blocked in China says nothing about either its strengths, or about its weaknesses. That would be to suggest that the firewall acted rationally itself. I'd leave the censorship factor out of the account when making programs, but would certainly monitor the censorship activities for other reasons.