AP owes China an apology

The news agency uses the word "torture" to describe that country's methods despite its government's denials

Published July 5, 2010 2:06PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

From an Associated Press article today on the conviction in China of an American citizen accused of spying and collecting "state secrets":

BEIJING – An American geologist held and tortured by China's state security agents was sentenced to eight years in prison Monday for gathering data on the Chinese oil industry in a case that highlights the government's use of vague secrets laws to restrict business information.

In pronouncing Xue Feng guilty of spying and collecting state secrets, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said his actions "endangered our country's national security." . . . Agents from China's internal security agency detained Xue in November 2007 and tortured him, stubbing lit cigarettes into his arms in the early days of his detention.

A few cigarette stubs into a forearm for a handful of days?  That's it?  That's "torture"?  Not according to the official definition of that term adopted by the U.S. Government, as explained by John Yoo:

Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture (under U.S. law), it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.

Placing a lit cigarette on someone's arm is unquestionably painful, but clearly does not rise to the level of pain "accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."  Moreover, any psychological harm would likely be fleeting, not of "significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years" -- that's at least as true as the psychological harm from being repeatedly strapped onto a board and drowned close to the point of death.  Making AP's use of the term "torture" even more journalistically inexcusable is that the Chinese Government has repeatedly and categorically denied that it uses "torture":

During the U.N. review of China’s human rights record on Monday (Feb. 9), Chinese delegate Song Hansong of the Supreme People's Procuratorate said that use of torture to obtain evidence was a criminal offense and that China had "established a comprehensive safeguard measure against torture in all our prisons and detention facilities."

"China is firmly against torture and would never allow torture to be used on ethnic groups, religious believers or other groups," Song said.  

Given the standards of Good Journalism prevailing in the U.S. media, as taught to us just this weekend by high-level executives at the NYT and The Washington Post (and previously at NPR):  what right does AP have to "take sides" in this dispute by substituting its own judgment about "torture" for the Chinese Government's?  Beyond that, given that the U.S. Government has officially adopted a definition of "torture" that plainly does not include a few cigarette stubs on an arm, shouldn't that preclude any Good Journalist from using the term in this subjective and biased way?  I hope AP will be apologizing to the Chinese shortly for its act of journalistic irresponsibility.  It's not the role of journalists to take sides this way.

* * * * * 

As I noted yesterday, Time's Alex Perry appeared in the comment section at FAIR's website after that media watchdog group had criticized an article Perry wrote on the Congo.  FAIR pointed out, accurately, that Perry concealed from his readers the vital role played by the U.S. in foisting the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko on Congo (while heaping all the blame on that country).  Among other petulant complaints, Perry bitterly mocked the idea that an upstanding, important news magazine such as Time would ever, ever shape its news coverage at the direction of the U.S. Government ("grow up," he bellowed).  Read Jonathan Schwarz's documented response to that, as compelling a response as I've read on the Internet to something like Perry's denialism.  Perry complained that FAIR did not contact him to obtain his comment before writing its critique, so to accommodate Perry's complaint, I've emailed him to ask for his response to Schwarz's post, as well as to other issues raised by his complaints.  I've not yet heard from him, but will post his response if and when I receive one.


UPDATE:  As lysias notes in comments, the North Vietnamese have emphatically denied that the techniques they used on John McCain constituted "torture":

The Republican US presidential candidate John McCain was not tortured during his captivity in North Vietnam, the chief prison guard of the jail in which he was held has claimed.

In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Nguyen Tien Tran acknowledged that conditions in the prison were "tough, though not inhuman". But, he added: "We never tortured McCain.  On the contrary, we saved his life, curing him with extremely valuable medicines that at times were not available to our own wounded."

Despite that, The New York Times states as though there is no dispute about it that McCain "was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam."  How can Bill Keller possibly justify taking sides this way concerning the meaning of "torture," something which, he told us this weekend, is not what Good Journalists do?  That's a particularly pressing question given that even the techniques to which McCain claims he was subjected are not "torture" under the U.S. definition to which the NYT is so deferential.  As I noted the other day, quoting Orwell, we don't need a state-run media because so many of our most influential outlets volunteer for the task.


UPDATE II:  Strangely, at some point after I wrote this, the above-linked AP article was re-written so as to edit out the word "torture" in the two places that word appeared to describe what the Chinese did (though the original language can still be seen in this old version of the AP article).  Perhaps, as recommended here, AP took to heart the Bill-Keller/WashPost/ NPR standard -- if a Government denies it did X, then a Good Journalist does not say that it did X -- and edited its article accordingly.

By Glenn Greenwald

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