Archive for December 17th, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Changes at Deutsche Welle’s Chinese Department: JR turns to Science

Song Luzheng (宋鲁郑), a journalist who runs a blog at IFeng (Phoenix, Hong Kong), revisited the labor disputes at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) with a blog post on November 10 this year. The dispute became public early this year when at least two of four journalists with the station’s Chinese department (referred to as “the four” further down in this post) took their cases to the labor courts – an unnamed journalist who had contributed to the department’s programs as a freelancer and whose case was heard and turned down in Bonn’s labor court in March this year, and Wang Fengbo (王凤波).

Wang seems to be quoted more extensively by Song, than I’ve seen him quoted elsewhere – except for an open letter the four published at the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in April this year.

But Song’s blogpost doesn’t leave the impression on me that people are necessarily quoted correctly – for one, all four journalists whose contracts were severed this year are described as members of the Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department, no matter if they were once freelancers or regular employees. Also, Song makes a reference to German law, writing that labor law wasn’t the only law that had counted in Wang Fengbo’s case, and that even German judges found that hard to explain1). This was the situation when it came to radio stations and similar organizations, but not in most other industries. (但根据德国相关法律,广播电台这种机构有权自由挑选所需要的工作人员。而这一条规定,就是德国的法官也表示难以理解,因为这是超越劳动法的权力!在其他行业是绝不可能发生的。)

What strikes me most is that Song’s post may have the desired effect on readers who want the Deutsche Welle to be more “China-friendly” (whatever that would mean), but that it contradicts the case the four journalists Song seems to defend have made in their open letter themselves. There is nothing that would suggest that Song could speak for Wang, or any of the four former Deutsche Welle employees or contributors. From Song’s post:

It should first be noted that no media must challenge or deny Western values, let alone the system – that’s the red line. All media must exercise strict self-discipline here. Only because Zhang Danhong reported and commented about China on the right side (她发表了许多正面报道中国的新闻和评论), she was removed. (Eastern and Western values are different, and to acknowledge Eastern values would amount to denying Western values.)


This blogger, cold-war minded as he may be (and no lawyer, to be clear), saw no fault with anything he had ever heard or read from Zhang Danhong’s Chinese department, prior to her removal, and as far as their  coverage at Deutsche Welle was concerned – not because she “reported on the right side”, but because she voiced her more controversial views only  outside Deutsche Welle2) – as far as I can see. The Chinese programs were boring, but whenever I listened or read (which, granted, wasn’t too frequently), they never left the impression on me that they were negating what Song refers to as “Western values” – values which are in fact not Western, but universal, and which the United Nations, after all, have agreed to.

The case Song makes would probably not be Wang Fengbo’s own case. This is how Huanqiu Shibao, a Chinese nationalist-leaning paper, quoted the Open Letter of the four, in May this year:

Outsiders could get the impression that in the case of Zhang Danhong, political issues and human rights had been the heart of the matter, Huanqiu Shibao quoted them. However, there had never been differences between the Chinese department’s editorial staff and the leadership of the Voice of Germany [or its Chinese department heads, rather – JR], concerning the importance of human rights which, the staff, too, had always believed, should be the basis for China’s future. Rather, matters of professionalism were been at the center of the dispute.

The Open Letter’s German version, as published by Neue Rheinische Zeitung, seems to confirm this quote:

For outsiders, who aren’t familiar with the formation of the “China debate” and the campaign against Mrs. Zhang which came with it, the impression may be left that this was a clash between two different concepts of political values and human rights. That, however, is definitely not the case, as all journalists involved, of Chinese origin, stand on the ground of the free democratic basic order and stand for the principles of human rights and democracy.  Concerning the validity of human rights, and criticism when they are violated, there have never been different views between the sanctioned colleagues and the new editorial management.

Für außenstehende Beobachter, die mit der Entwicklung nach der “China-Debatte” und der damit verbundenen Kampagne gegen Frau Danhong Zhang nicht vertraut sind, könnte der ganze Sachverhalt zunächst den Eindruck erwecken, dass es sich hier um einen Zusammenprall von zwei unterschiedlichen Auffassungen von politischen Werten und Menschenrechtsverständnissen handelt. Dies ist aber mit Sicherheit nicht der Fall, da alle beteiligten Journalisten chinesischer Herkunft auf dem Boden der freiheitlich-demokratischen Grundordnung stehen und für die Prinzipen der Menschenrechte und Demokratie einstehen. In Bezug auf die Geltung der Menschenrechte und Kritik an ihrer Verletzung gab es zwischen den sanktionierten Mitabeitern der DW und der neuen Redaktionsleitung zu keinem Zeitpunkt unterschiedliche Auffassungen.

More details from the Open Letter can be found here – much of Song’s blogpost in November, inasfar as it described the labor dispute, also drew on those details.

Song’s post soon went far beyond Europe, to North America, and to Israel, and to Palestine. It seems to be a feelgood post for fenqings – “They-do-it-too!” stuff, basically.  I can’t expect to draw genuine information from it, even though IFeng is a Hong Kong broadcaster and media company, not under the guidance of the CCP’s propaganda department. That said, Song himself is a mainlander, and lives in Paris as a member of the overseas Chinese community, as the Paris Culture Salon’s (巴黎文化沙龙) secretary-general, and as the executive-director of the Shandong Provincial Overseas Exchange Council  (山东省海外交流协会). He contributes to IFeng, but also to People’s Daily, and Qiu-Shi (《求是》杂志), a bi-monthly political theory paper published by the Central Party School and the Central Committee.

Neither the “Zhang Danhong incident” in 2008, nor the case of the four journalists who wrote the Open Letter this year, are as transparent as I’d like them to be. Especially in Zhang’s case – she still works at Deutsche Welle, but not at the Chinese department -, the station may have to observe certain duties to protect her from unduly ample coverage. After all, a journalist working for a radio station is no politician. And in the other four cases, there may still be civil lawsuits in the pipeline which keep both sides from talking openly.

But a curious mind like me would wish that all the facts were on the table. My working hypothesis for now is that Deutsche Welle – from its employees and contributors – has demanded a stronger emphasis on human rights, during the past three years, than had been the case previously. Indeed, both my impression of the station’s Chinese programs, and statements by Deutsche Welle itself, would suggest that.

There had been discussions about the Welle’s self-conception in the past. There were (and are, I’m sure) observers who saw the station as just another broadcaster, where journalists basically did the same job as those at domestic broadcasters, with a journalistic approach. There were others who suggested that the Welle was part of Germany’s public diplomacy, or otherwise involved in foreign policy, in its wider or narrower sense.

When the Voice of America (VoA) was technically refurbished, and ideologically rearranged by the Reagan administration in the first half of the 1980s,  the Financial Times, as quoted by Der Spiegel, found that the “VoA Editorial”, then newly introduced in the Voice’s programs, should scare diplomats who thought highly of themselves (my German-to-English translation; the FT’s original wording might be different). And Roy Medvedev, a dissident historian at the time, and also quoted by Der Spiegel, observed that VoA broadcasts had become quite blistering – which would annoy most Russian listeners, as it “insulted their patriotism”. Before, the American Voice had been more contained, but also more effective.

So far, I’ve written about Deutsche Welle as a listener, and reader only, who is trying to make sense of what is going on. But I’ve started reading my way through some concepts of public diplomacy, with at least one of them focusing on Deutsche Welle. Input, especially when it comes to this aspect, is welcome. Neither German, nor Chinese coverage on the recent three years at Deutsche Welle seems to be terribly enlightening.  Hence, JR is now turning to science, to spot some stars of insight there.

A Star of Insight?

A Star of Insight?

Merry Christmas.



1) I doubt that a judge or lawyer finds this hard to explain – a layperson may find it hard to understand, though. In an earlier commenter thread, I tried to make sense of the matter. The heart of the matter would to be that the state exercises legal oversight at Deutsche Welle, which would be about procedure, rather than content. This, however, is strictly laymanspeak, i. e. my personal interpretation.

2) That’s not to say that she made no mistakes in her comments. In an interview with Germany’s domestic broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, she reportedly compared Chinese internet censorship with censorship of right-wing extremist websites in Germany – and censorship of child pornography. To call such a comparison unfortunate would be very mild criticism. And in the wake of the brawl, she reportedly had an intern act as an interviewer and had the intern ask her questions Zhang herself had previously devised herself. The self-interview‘s topic had been differences between Zhang and He Qinglian (何清涟), a U.S.-based Chinese economist and dissident.



» Press Release, Deutsche Welle, May 18, 2011
» Initial Post: Unharmonious Days, Nov 14, 2008

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