Trusting the Media

Here is some background information from the Subverting Journalism: Reporters and the CIA by Kate Houghton, Committee To Project Journalists:

American journalists have long been bitterly opposed to the recruitment of reporters by U.S. intelligence agencies, and the fraudulent use of journalism credentials by intelligence operatives. Since the mid-1970s, journalists and others-including some of the nation's top foreign policy-makers-believed that the CIA could no longer recruit reporters as spies. They shared a widespread but inaccurate assumption that the U.S. government had banned such objectionable practices as part of a package of reforms revamping codes of conduct for covert intelligence operations adopted in response to recommendations of the 1976 Church Committee report. In its investigation of U.S. foreign and military intelligence operations, the committee-the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho)-found that more than 50 American journalists had worked clandestinely as CIA agents during the Cold War era. The committee's final report strongly condemned this practice and unequivocally called on the intelligence community to "permit American journalists and news organizations to pursue their work without jeopardizing their credibility in the eyes of the world through covert use of them."

In fact, during the subsequent two decades, the CIA merely curtailed the practice.

The issue was spotlighted anew in the spring of 1996 by the release of a Council on Foreign Relations task force report on U.S. intelligence-gathering policies and practices-which in turn inadvertently prompted the passage of the first U.S. law explicitly permitting the practice. Ironically, many of the members of Congress who supported the new statute thought they were effectively prohibiting the covert use of journalists by the CIA.

The episode could be written off as yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences-were the consequences not so potentially calamitous. The perception that American journalists are agents of the U.S. government compromises their professional integrity, impedes their ability to function in many parts of the world, and often puts their lives in jeopardy. Yet the CIA's endorsement of the new law, coupled with the agency's admission that it reserves the right to use this practice as an avenue for clandestine information-gathering, can only magnify these suspicions.

This post actually addresses a recent case in China in which a rights proponent was trapped by public security officials who pretended that they worked for a CCTV program and wanted an interview.  The man had been in hiding with the local government putting up a 200,000 yuan reward for his arrest.  It was the trust and faith in the media that lured the rights proponent to come out.  The story appeared in the August 14, 2005 issue of Yazhou Zhoukan and the following is a summary:

The scene is the petroleum fields in the Shaanbei area of China.  Once upon a time, this was a remote area where it was economically infeasible for the national petroleum company to drill and pump petroleum.  So a number of small independent operators got licenses to build their own operations.  With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and the rising price of oil, these properties are now attractive.  Big businesses and governments have colluded to force out the small independent operators, who are organizing and fighting back to protect their own interests.  If this was an economic problem at first, it is now a political problem.

The situation for the private operators is not good.  Here are some of the obstacles that they face:

If they meet in a hotel to discuss protecting their rights, that is called an "illegal assembly."
If the lawyer accepts a legal fee, that is called "illegal fee collection."
If they petition as a group, that is called "assembling to disturb the social order."
If they protest, they are either ignored or met with force.
If they tell the media, the information will be quickly suppressed.
If they complain on the Internet, the websites will be shut down.
If they are finally forced to contact the foreign media, that is "collaborating with foreign countries to endanger national security."

This is the story about Feng Bingxian (馮秉先).  He is a civilian entrepreneur in Inner Mongolia.  In the late 1990's, he was invited by the local Shaanbei government to develop oil fields.  In the early 2000's, his oil fields were forcibly purchased back by the government at low prices.  Feng has been fighting to get justice; he has petitioned in Beijing, hired lawyers to sue the government and negotiated with the government.  In mid-May, the talks with the Shaanxi government collapsed and Feng realized that he might get arrested.  So he went on the road while still maintaining contact through the Internet and the media.  He moved from place to place, he used different Internet bars, and he used different email accounts to frustrate the public security officials.

In mid-July, the Phoenix TV program Economic Focus showed a segment about Feng Bingxian and the rights of Shaanxi private investors.  But the re-broadcast of that program the next day was suppressed.  On July 20, Feng received an email from CCTV's Economics and Law program.  A reporter who said that his name is Liu Bo wrote that he wished to interview Feng.  At that time, Feng wrote a friend: "I'm excited.  If this matter can gain the attention of the mainstream media, a solution may be possible."

At the time, Feng was careful to tell the other party: "Mr. Liu Bo:  I thank you for your letter!  Being interviewed by CCTV is something that I longed for!  In the past, it had been said that the Central Propaganda Department did not permit the mainstream media to report on the Shaanbei oil fields issue, and that was why I did not contact CCTV before.  Have things changed now?  Since the Shaanbei government has a bounty of 200,000 yuan for my arrest, I am no longer using the telephone for safety reasons.  I will only communicate via email.  You can tell me what your needs are for the special edition, so that I can make preparations.  When and where will be the interview be, approximately?  I must make preparations because I am not in Beijing right now.  By the way, how did you find this Yahoo email address?  Please give me your telephone number, so that I will let my Beijing friend contact you."

Very quickly, Liu Bo replied.  The email said: "I have told my supervisor about your situation.  We are sympathetic with your situation and we are disgusted with the actions of the Shaanbei government.  The reason why we want to produce this program is to help you solve the problem.  Otherwise, there wouldn't be any point to this interview."

The email also emphasized that on the matter of the Central Propaganda Department banning the mainstream media from reporting on the Shaanbei oil fields, the CCTV leadership said that they have never received explicit written orders as such.  Liu Bo also told Feng that the email address was provided by the supervisor, who did not explain how it came.  "The leadership has instructed us to ensure that your safety be guaranteed before the program is shown on the air.  If you don't want to use the telephone, we can communicate via email.  The email address for the Economics and Law program is but you should send your email to my personal mailbox at  After you receive this mail, please reply as quickly as possible to my requests."

There is an attachment to Liu Bo's email for a proposed outline of the program.  The interview should hopefully take place between July 26 and July 30, and the program should be broadcast in early August.  Liu Bo told Feng that the main theme of the program will start from the fact that "the Shaanbei government has offered a huge bounty for your arrest and you were therefore forced to flee, and this will lead to the list of crimes that the Shaanbei government thinks you have committed and the attitudes and policies of the Shaanbei government towards the private entrepreneurs."  CCTV will also interview local government and police figures as well as experts and scholars in Beijing.  The duration of the program is 30 minutes.

The email also said: "The idea of the program is this: news is caused and pushed by people, and people will always be the body of the news.  Therefore, we want to use 'you' to interpret and demonstrate the facts.  We will let the audience want to know you -- what did you do? why did you do it?  Therefore, we would like to meet with you in person to exchange ideas.  This way, we can tell the audience of Economics and Law why you had to do it and what you actually did, and how to develop private entrepreneurship in China."  This highly sympathetic note from the news media touched Feng and caused him to lose a bit of wariness.

Liu Bo also used very humanistic words: "We'll have to pay some attention to the environment in which we will interview you.  For example, the interview can be made in the environment of your flight, but you should maintain a calm composure.  When you speak with the interviewer, you can show your thoughts about missing your family and friends during your flight.  Thus, our interview will focus on the issues that arise from talking to you, so as to get the audience to  sympathize with you.  From here, we can make the Shaanbei government change their behavior towards you as well as the entire private enterprise issue."  Feng had wanted to protect his own rights and to get his imprisoned friends out, and he believed all this was true.  Although people advised him to let his Beijing friend meet Liu Bo first, Feng insisted on being interviewed.

On the morning of July 27, a friend found out on the Internet that Feng was going to meet Liu Bo.  He tried to stop him, but Feng didn't think that anything was wrong.  Feng just shut off the computer and left.  From that time on, there has been no news of Feng.  Some sources claimed that Feng was arrested by Shaanbei public security officers at the meeting place and he has since been brought back to Shaanbei.

It cannot be confirmed if some media worker used the desire of the Feng Bingxian to get media support to work with the Shaanbei government to catch him.  But a Beijing law enforcement source told us that there are a number of cases in recent years in which something similar has happened, as when the principals were about to be interviewed by CCTV but were arrested by the police just ahead of time at the meeting place.

Earlier, the director of a Hainan business group was 'invited' to Beijing to talk about the corruption problems, but he was arrested at the entrance to CCTV.  A former manager of a Shandong pharmaceutical company went to Beijing to air the corruption problems and arranged to meet with a CCTV reporter, but he was arrested at the entrance of the restaurant.

Was Feng Bingxian another victim because he wanted to get the support of the central media?  We called up the office for the CCTV program Economics and Law, and a female definitively told us that there was no reporter by the name of Liu Bo and that there is no plan for such a program segment.  Actually, whether or not 'Liu Bo' existed or not, a deception had taken place.  This is not just an ethical issue, because it is also illegal.  Will CCTV take action as a result?