FALUN DAFA ASSOCIATION OF NEW ZEALAND Inc AGAINST CHINESE TIMES

Case Number: 2469

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Chinese Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Discrimination
Unfair Coverage

Overview

The Falun Dafa Association, through Kerryn Webster of Auckland law firm Wilson Harle, has complained about an article inChinese Times. Members are practitioners of a spiritual practice often called Falun Gong. The article, according to the translation, is headlined ‘Falun Gong practitioners congregate in front of the consulate on a long-term basis’ and sub-headed ‘Chinese community groups join forces to remonstrate with them’. It was published on B4 of theChinese Times on Saturday July 18.

The Chinese Times has no formal association with the Press Council, but agreed the Council should determine the complaint and provided a response. They also confirmed that the translation provided was an accurate account of the published material.

The article itself is a single paragraph about a protest outside the Chinese Consulate by Falun Dafa members and the efforts of others to convince them to move on.

The story is accompanied by a longer ‘Joint Declaration’ by five Chinese community groups from around New Zealand, which argue a “group of remonstrators” made two visits to the protest. It describes Falun Gong as a cult that is “slandering the Chinese government”, “damaging the image of the Chinese people”, and blocking the footpath to pedestrians. The groups have complained to the Auckland Council about Falun Dafa’s “long-term occupation of the footpath outside the Consulate General entrance”.

The article and joint declaration are separated by several photographs of placard-bearing protesters and remonstrators.

The Complaint

The Falun Dafa Association argues the article (including the Joint Declaration) breaches the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, comment and fact, and conflicts of interest.

On Principle 1 Accuracy, fairness and balance, Webster writes the report gives an inaccurate and misleading version of events. The Falun Dafa members present say it was the 30-40 protesters blocking the footpath, not the 10-12 practitioners. Further, police arrived and told the remonstrators, not the practitioners, to leave and said the practitioners were within their rights to protest.

In regard to the declaration, Falun Dafa argues it is not a cult, nor does its criticism of Chinese government policy discredit the Chinese people or government. Webster writes that the declaration is “essentially an extended quote or vehicle for the publication of the views of those associations”.

Falun Dafa was offered no right of reply, Webster adds, and despite repeated requests has still not published a response. Finally on this principle, the Association says it has been in contact with Auckland Council; the footpath complaint has been investigated and dismissed.

On Principle 4 Comment and fact principle, Webster writes this page was in the Community News section, yet argues the facts of the article, including the declaration, are inaccurate. “The placement of the ‘joint declaration’ within the article tries to mask the controversial opinion piece as an objective, factual report of events”, she argues.

On Principle 10 Conflicts of interest, Webster relies on comments made by one of theTimes’ editors – Ms Wu – who told Falun Dafa members at a July 23 meeting to discuss their complaint that the newspaper would not print their side of the story as content had to be approved by the Chinese consulate and such approval would not be forthcoming. “The publication appears to be a mouthpiece of the Chinese Consulate… This is at odds with the fundamental principle that the press should be free and independent,” she writes. She wants at least for the Council to find that theTimes should disclose its allegiances.

The Response

The Chinese Times editor informs us that the Joint Declaration was a paid advertisement, so it is therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Council.

On the matter of the conflict of interest, the editor denies the claims that the material published in her newspaper is approved by the Chinese consulate. She says Ms Wu did not say what the Falun Dafa members claim and that theTimes is an independent publication.

The editor insists that the report published is “not unbalanced” and Falun Dafa members were not interviewed because their exercises outside the consulate have been going on a long time and are not news. Moreover, she writes, the comments by the practitioners were “subjective emotion” and therefore not “pertinent and objective”.

The Decision

The Council notes that our ruling is on the reportage only; we make no comment on the rights and wrongs of the argument between the parties.

It is not disputed that the article covers events that took place on the day and at the place reported. But beyond that the report falls short in its obligations to be an accurate and balanced news story. It gives voice to the remonstrators and even describes the weather, but fails to balance the story with the views of the Falun Dafa members. It generalises by claiming the remonstrators spoke “on behalf of the Chinese community” as a whole, when we can assume a diversity of opinion.

The editor’s view that the practitioners’ actions were emotive, and neither pertinent nor news does not excuse reporting on the event without balance. It is unfair to criticise the practitioners without giving them a right of reply either in the story or in a follow-up piece or letter to the editor. By doing so, the Chinese Times has failed to ensure the accuracy of the article as well; the article claims the “protest was peaceful and reasoned throughout”, yet Falun Dafa says police were called and the remonstrators asked to leave. The editor does not dispute this, so we can only go on the practitioners’ version of events. The complaint against Principle 1 is upheld.

The Joint Declaration is an advertisement and beyond our mandate to rule on the content.The complaint against Principle 4 is not upheld.

However the Council is concerned that it was not clearly labelled as an ad, but rather was made to look part of the article. The editor is responsible for all a newspaper’s content and it is her/his obligation to make it clear to readers what is paid advertising and what is journalism. The Chinese Times failed to do this.

The practitioners make the serious claim that the Chinese Times has a conflict of interest – and indeed is answerable to – the Chinese Consulate. The editor, however, strongly rejects that allegation and as those facts are disputed, we are unable to rule on that point.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, and Tim Watkin.