Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad has gone on the offensive after a Chinese news assistant accused its China correspondent of making up quotes, fabricating interviews and plagiarizing from other media outlets.
Based in Shanghai, Oscar Garschagen has been the Dutch newspaper’s China correspondent since 2007. However, his reputation was thrown into question on Sunday after an article was published on WeChat, written by his former news assistant, Zhang Chaoqun, which accuses the reporter of a slew of crimes against journalism, appearing to confirm all of Chinese netizens’ worst suspicions about foreign correspondents working in China.
On Monday, Zhang published an English version of his accusations on the website China Data Insider. He begins:
Being a news assistant who helps with pitching stories, conducting researches, conducting/arranging interviews, and translating any necessary Chinese materials but never gets to write a story or have a proper byline (not even a research byline), I dare not say I have mastered the dark art of making fake new. But I have the luck of working with one of the greatest masters of the dark art for two years and watching him fabricating, twisting and distorting stories on many occasions.
Zhang goes on to write that Garschagen, who had previously worked as a correspondent in Israel and the US, should have become a novelist or playwright instead, accusing him of seven instances of “making fake news in China.” These accusations include Garschagen allegedly making up interviews that never happened, quoting things that people never said, completely fabricating details of stories and ripping off the work of an NPR correspondent.
NRC Handelsblad has not taken kindly to Zhang questioning the integrity of its reporter. On Tuesday, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Peter Vandermeersch, wrote a blog post, defending Garschagen while taking a number of shots at Zhang.
The post claims that Zhang simply was not present at the disputed interviews because Garschagen did not trust him, believing that he was in contact with Chinese state security. Vandermeersch writes that there had been friction between correspondent and assistant with Zhang allegedly reluctant to go to Beijing to cover the upcoming party congress and angry after Garschagen warned him that he would be retiring soon and that the paper’s new China correspondent might choose to hire a new assistant.
As for the plagiarism accusation, Garschagen explained that he had received contacts for his article from the NPR reporter, a common practice among China correspondents, which explains the similarity in the reports.
However, Garschagen was not able to properly address all of Zhang’s accusations. As Sixth Tone notes:
One of Zhang’s accusations, that Garschagen had mixed up the details of two cases of elderly suicides, Garschagen does not explain fully. His article opens with the anecdote of a 72-year-old man called Wang Bingzhang, who killed himself after he found out he was incurably ill and whose body was discovered in the Yangtze River. Although Garschagen is quoted as saying that he verified this story with the man’s family, details, such as where the man’s remains were found, contradict Chinese news reports.
Garschagen also admitted that he had made mistakes in two instances. A quote attributed to the lawyer of a Dutchman who stood trial in Beijing earlier this year was actually said by the defendant’s girlfriend, and only after publication did Garschagen find out that the case of a domestic violence victim suing her husband for divorce had not been settled, as he wrote in his article. “Because I was busy I failed to correct the [article’s] digital version, which also appeared in the newspaper two days later,” Garschagen was quoted as saying.
Zhang resigned from NRC on Monday and has said that he hopes the paper will carry out a full and thorough investigation into all of the accusations, rather than quickly dismiss them with a blog post. He also rejected the post’s various allegations against him, telling Sixth Tone that he had no contact with Chinese state security except for the purpose of interviews, was not reluctant to report on the party congress in Beijing and carried on an amicable relationship with Garschagen.
In Radii China, Yajun Zhang, a former Chinese news assistant, spoke out against how NRC had handled the case, arguing that Chinese nationals who are employed by foreign media often face even greater risks than foreign correspondents working in China, and that slandering Zhang’s name is not the same as cleaning up Garschagen’s:
When I saw NRC Handelsblad’s headquarters’ lengthy response, I felt very disappointed. I understand that Zhang Chaoqun’s approach to disclose the case on a public platform without consulting NRC’s internal procedures put that organization in a difficult position, but rather than conduct an independent investigation to clear Mr. Garschagen’s name and take the moral high ground, the organization decided to muddy the waters and accuse the news assistant of “refusing to cover the 19th party congress” and “having contact with Chinese state security.” This is not wise, since it has nothing to do with the accusation, and does little to solve the problem or restore Mr. Garschagen’s reputation…
I have a lot of experience writing statements for organizations in crisis, and would like to provide my communication expertise to NRC: The audience is always sympathetic to the underdog. A respected news organization needs to take the high ground by launching an independent investigation and providing trustworthy evidence to the public. Changing the topic by smearing your former employees will never help your reputation, and will only make people wonder about the true reason behind the accusations.
At this time, it’s not clear if the NRC will conduct a further investigation into the allegations made by Zhang. On Tuesday, Garschagen told the Global Times that he was “considering all options” against Zhang, including legal action. “I write hundreds of original articles about China, and I never had any trouble, neither with sources nor with authorities,” he said.
[Images via Global Times]
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