A respected Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, has dismissed its China correspondent, Oscar Garschagen, following an investigation into claims made earlier this month by a Chinese news assistant, who alleged that Garschagen had been fabricating stories.
On Wednesday, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Peter Vandermeersch, published a post stating that an internal investigation had found that Garschagen had committed “serious mistakes” in his reporting which violated NRC’s journalistic rules and damaged the trust that the paper’s editors and readers had put in him. In view of the fact that they could no longer guarantee that some of Garschagen’s stories were based on his own reporting and observations, NRC’s editorial team decided that he must leave the paper.
The 64-year-old journalist had served as the Dutch newspaper’s China correspondent since 2007. Previously he had also worked as a foreign correspondent in Israel and the US. He was set to retire next year.
In a WeChat article which went viral in early September, Zhang Chaoqun, who worked as Garschagen’s news assistant for two years, wrote that his boss would have made a better novelist or playwright than reporter, accusing Garschagen of seven instances of “making fake news in China.” These accusations included 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.
Following an investigation into these accusations, the NRC editorial team was forced to admit that some of Garschagen’s reporting contained flaws, including plagiarism. Vandermeersch writes that Garschagen relied too heavily on others’ reporting, combined quotes from two different sources into one non-existent person and used reporting from NPR without attribution.
But that’s not all: quotes from a report about golfing in China were not taken from the mouth of a golf professor, but from a blog post and articles — again without attribution. In a story about the Chinese credit system, a quote from a Belgian expert was improperly attributed to a Chinese professor.
Vandermeersch writes that Garschagen had an “emotional conversation” with the paper’s editorial team last week after being confronted with these findings. Garschagen told his colleagues that in the lead-up to his retirement he wanted to show that he could “still do it,” adding that over the last couple of years he had struggled with burnout and depression.
“There are many recent stories that are rock solid,” he insisted, while admitting that “some of the pieces I made more beautiful and interesting than they actually were. I had heard things from people I spoke with, I had read things, and, in a few cases, I made it my own story.”
Those stories written by Garschagen that the NRC can not verify will now carry a notice that an “internal investigation has shown that NRC can not guarantee the journalistic integrity of this story.”
To conclude, Vandermeersch writes even with the disclaimers, Garschagen’s reporting deserves to be honored. “Despite the mistakes that Garschagen has made, we will continue to carry Oscar as a person and colleague in our hearts,” he said. “Recent mistakes can not hide the fact that he has done excellent work in the past few years.”
The Dutch paper’s position on Garschagen has changed quite a bit since earlier this month when Vandermeersch wrote a blog post defending his correspondent while taking a number of shots at his Chinese assistant. In the piece, Zhang was accused of failing to come up with enough original story ideas, being reluctant to travel to Beijing to report on next month’s party congress and even being in contact with Chinese state security.
NRC’s latest article does not include an apology to Zhang for attempting to smear his name and reputation, only mentioning him a single time, despite the fact that without him, Garschagen’s “serious mistakes” may never have come to light.
On Wednesday, Zhang told Sixth Tone that he is “happy and grateful that NRC acknowledged the facts,” but expressed his hope that the paper would still publicly apologize to him, a sentiment that many other media members have echoed.
Conveniently @nrc forgets to apologize to fmr news assistant Zhang Chaoqun. I'd think you owe him at least that, if not more.
— Wei Du 杜唯 (@WeiDuCNA) September 20, 2017
Can't help noticing that the whole account mentions whistleblower @evolrof only once, no word of thanks or recognition otherwise.
— Wang Feng (@ulywang) September 20, 2017
— Xinyan (@xinyanyu) September 20, 2017
After news of Garschagen’s dismissal broke, Kaiser Kuo, now editor-at-large of SupChina, wrote on Facebook that while he had been quoted in Garschagen’s articles, he couldn’t recall ever actually meeting the Dutch reporter. According to Kuo, his quotes were either taken from other stories without attribution or from talks that he had given.
In the comments underneath Kuo’s post, translator and blogger Brendan O’Kane writes that it is “striking to see that the NRC’s statement doesn’t carry any hint of an apology to Zhang.” Meanwhile, Matt Schiavenza, Senior Content Manager at Asia Society writes that he is still in “awe of how brave and determined Chiense news assistants are. Very disheartening to see one tossed under the bus in this case.”
Back in 2015, Schiavenza wrote a piece for The Atlantic, “News Assistants: The Unsung Heroes of Journalism in China,” which noted that being an assistant to a foreign journalist was becoming an increasingly dangerous job in China:
News assistants face risks that far exceed those of their foreign colleagues. State security officials, who monitor foreign news coverage closely, frequently invite news assistants “for tea,” a common Chinese euphemism for unwelcome encounters with government authorities. In these meetings, news assistants are asked to divulge what foreign journalists are working on, the names of their sources, and other information vital to their work. Those who refuse to comply risk harassment, beatings, and indefinite detention.
Evidently, at some publications they aren’t treated much better by their employer.
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