A spokeswoman for the US State Department has acknowledged that the Kunming attack was an act of terrorism on Tuesday after China’s largest journalist association condemned Western media for “harbouring ulterior motives” when reporting last Saturday’s massacre that left 29 dead.
When asked to comment by a Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV reporter at a regular news briefing, Jen Psaki acknowledged that “the attack appeared to be an act of terrorism” because of a lack of “any other independent information”.
But she eventually gave in after being repeatedly asked to respond. “So we are calling this an act of terrorism,” she was quoted as saying.
Also on Tuesday, the government-backed All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), the country’s most authoritative journalist organisation, published a statement on its website stating “Some Western media ignored the most fundamental rule of journalism, displaying ambiguous attitudes and ulterior motives.”
The statement named television network CNN, and the Associated Press news agency, both US-based media organisations, claiming that in reports of the Kunming attack quotation marks were placed around words such as “terrorism” and “assailants” was used rather than “terrorists”.
“Such practice shows ‘double standards’, violating the principle of objectivity in journalism and showing a lack of basic professional ethics,” the association said in its statement.
Associated Press has attributed all claims of “terrorists” and “terrorism” to either China’s state-run Xinhua news agency or Chinese authorities in its stories on the Kunming attack to date, the South China Morning Post found, while CNN has not been consistent in adopting quotation marks around the words in its reports.
Both media are not immediately available for comments on the accusations.
The ACJA’s statement follows heated debate on China’s vibrant social media platforms such as twitter-like Sina Weibo, where many internet users and some Chinese journalists have vented anger about the way the attack has been depicted in the foreign media and questioned the motives behind it.
“Terror is terror”, veteran anchor Yang Rui of state-run CCTV’s English language channel wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog. He said he was disappointed by the double standards America displayed when reporting the attack.
“Don’t force us to add quotation marks around Bin Laden,” he wrote in a post.
Others pointed out that the use of quotes was usual practice for Western media when reporting unconfirmed breaking news. Peng Zengjun, a journalism professor at the St Cloud State University in US, urged the public not to “allow grief to cloud journalists’ objective and balanced reporting.”
But anger was further provoked after the website of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, entered the fray.
In a diagram published on its official Sina Weibo account on Monday, the website compared descriptions and word-selections used by the BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, and Fox News in their reports on the Kunming attack and the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby, an incident later deemed an act of terrorism.
The diagram showed that the four media outlets all referred to the attack on Lee Rigby as a terror attack, but used descriptions such as “knife attack”, “violence”, or “Uygur-Han conflicts” when reporting the attack in Kunming.
Public records available on the internet on Tuesday, however, do not entirely support the website’s claims, the South China Morning Post has found.
A report on The Telegraph website, for example, referred to the attackers as “knife-wielding terrorists” with no quotation marks in its headline. The BBC only referred to the Woolwich killing as a “terror attack” after British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to it as “an act of terrorism”. And at least one CNN story referred to the rampage last weekend as “deadly Kunming terror attacks”.
Several western journalists on Twitter refuted the accusation in the People’s Daily diagram and questioned the paper’s motives.
When the US embassy in Beijing posted “America condemns this horrific and meaningless violence in Kunming” in Chinese on its official Sina Weibo microblog, grieving netizens questioned its sincerity, perceiving the remark as toning down the seriousness of the incident.
“Does this represent the attitude of the US government?” asked Ma Xiaolin, founder and CEO of a blogging site. “Only ‘horrific and meaningless’? Would the US government describe similar attacks carried out on American soil in the same way?”
But some bloggers were quick to point out that the wording might have resulted from careless translation and that the original statement might have said “senseless violence”, a phrase often used by western governments when condemning attacks.
The US embassy in Beijing had not responded to questions as of Tuesday afternoon.
Video of China's Kunming railway station attack suspects being captured