Here lies the truth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2005, 12:00am

With only a bruise on his right elbow to show for the beating he was given by thugs in Guangdong, pro-democracy activist Lu Banglie is in a forgiving mood towards the British journalist who told the world he had been mutilated and left for dead.

'He seemed young and I don't think he was very experienced,' said Mr Lu, 34, as he recovered from his ordeal with friends in Hubei province . 'He was caught up in a very frightening situation. In those circumstances it is understandable that he got it wrong.'

Benjamin Joffe-Walt's report - splashed on the front page of Britain's The Guardian newspaper on Monday last week - described in graphic detail how Mr Lu was apparently killed by a group of five to six men in Taishi, Guangdong, the scene of rural unrest.

Mr Lu had been accompanying Joffe-Walt and his translator when they were stopped and Mr Lu, a legislator from Hubei who has helped villagers try to fight for their legal rights, was dragged out of the taxi after being recognised by the mob.

In a shocking report, the 25-year-old reporter said he saw Mr Lu lying on the ground 'his eye out of its socket, his tongue cut, a stream of blood dropping from his mouth, his body limp, twisted ... the ligaments in his neck were broken'. It seemed a brutal indictment of the abuses of power in rural China - until Mr Lu appeared in his home province, very much alive and without any serious injuries, on the same day the sensational report in The Guardian was published.

He had been beaten unconscious, and bundled into a car and driven back to his home province, hundreds of kilometres away. Mr Lu has since undergone medical examinations and internal scans that reveal no lasting injuries.

So how could the journalist have misjudged the situation so gravely? Looking at copies of the newspaper's reports, Mr Lu said: 'I was wearing a red shirt and it was dark. Maybe he saw the colour of my shirt and thought it was blood. As for my eye popping out, perhaps he just saw the reflection of the torches being shone in my eyes.

'His report is obviously false, but I believe it is the government's fault that things like this happen. If the government allowed journalists to report what is going on in these villages, these kind of false reports wouldn't appear. If they let people go freely into these places, people would know the truth.'

Joffe-Walt's employers have been less generous in their appraisal of the report filed by the American former high school teacher who began working as the newspaper's Shanghai correspondent last month.

In a blunt article by the newspaper's own ombudsman on Monday, the newspaper said Joffe-Walt had been recalled to London and examined by a psychotherapist, who had concluded that at the time of writing, he had 'lost touch with reality'.

The article spoke of the reporter's 'grave flaws' and 'gross errors and exaggerations' and said his report had 'threatened the credibility and integrity of The Guardian's reporting in China'.

It emphasised Joffe-Walt's relative inexperience, saying: 'His main experience has been gained in six months working for a South Africa newspaper ... and an overlapping period as a stringer [for] a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph.'

The story of how the paths of two idealistic young men from hugely different backgrounds - one a western journalist and the other a Chinese activist - came to cross with dramatic results in the south of China is an intriguing and unlikely one.

As recently as 2003, Joffe-Walt was working as a high school teacher in Canada. He went to Baghdad as a human shield, one of a group of anti-war activists who tried to put themselves in danger's way to stop a US invasion.

Afterwards, he told his hometown paper in the US, the Philadelphia Daily News, that the experience was 'very stressful' but that he would be prepared to go back and put himself in harm's way for the anti-war cause.

Joffe-Walt chose not to return, it seems, but instead headed for Africa, where he began a new career as a newspaper reporter, working first for South Africa's This Day newspaper and then as a stringer across Africa for The Sunday Telegraph.

He filed harrowing stories from across the continent, visiting flashpoints including Darfur and picking up an impressive brace of awards in the process - young journalist of the year from the Foreign Press Association in London and CNN African print journalist of the year in June this year.

Joffe-Walt's transformation from high school teacher to frontline war reporter took place at the same time as a sea change in Mr Lu's life. A farmer in Hubei, Mr Lu became increasingly disillusioned with the abuses of power in rural China and decided to fight for the reduction of taxes on poor farmers.

As his marriage broke down and his wife took their daughter, now seven, to live in a new home more than 20km away, Mr Lu became increasingly involved in his political activity, taking advantage of rural reforms to win a seat in 2003 as a provincial legislator.

'I got involved in politics because I saw how the lives of farmers are so hard and so bitter, and the local governments and village committees are so unreasonable,' he said. 'I wanted to change it.'

He had been immersed in the fight for villager rights in Taishi for weeks before he met Joffe-Walt, two Saturdays ago. Standing in for The Guardian's China correspondent, Jonathan Watts, the young reporter went to Guangdong to report on the unrest.

They spent only a few hours together before the drama on a roadside near Taishi.

Joffe-Walt claims he asked Mr Lu to get out of the car three times before they stopped at a security roadblock, but Mr Lu said: 'I reassured the reporter I would be OK. I told him I have a big life inside me ... I told him he didn't need to worry about my safety.'

Reflecting on what happened to him, Mr Lu said: 'I don't believe they were trying to kill me, because if I had died it would have caused a big controversy. They just wanted to scare me so I wouldn't go back again. But I will go back. I am not afraid.'

Joffe-Walt returned to Shanghai the day after the attack, arriving just in time to catch the end of an opening party for his office - set up with a group of other reporters working for newspapers overseas and nicknamed 'the writers' commune' by fellow journalists.

It would appear that he filed the report late on that Sunday night, Shanghai time. The Guardian said it arrived 'only an hour before deadline, which left little time for interaction' and described his original copy as '3,500 words in a graphic stream-of-consciousness narrative'.

After the story broke, events moved quickly. Joffe-Walt was summoned to a meeting in Hong Kong with The Guardian's diplomatic editor, Ewan MacAskill, who was flown out from London to interview him. Watts was meanwhile recalled from holiday and sent to interview Mr Lu and arrange for a medical examination.

Joffe-Walt was then flown back to London where The Guardian said he 'expressed repeated apologies for what he had done and its implications for The Guardian, and indeed for the pro-democracy movement in China'.

Journalists in Shanghai were meanwhile bemused at the saga of the young journalist who had only just arrived in the country and now appeared to be making one of the quickest exits on record, a day after his welcoming party.

One senior Shanghai-based journalist, who asked not to be named, said: 'One of his colleagues said he had a flair for the dramatic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a journalist. But it seems that in this case he may have gone a bit too far.'

Whether Joffe-Walt has a future with The Guardian remains to be seen. Monday's article announced that the British newspaper, which prides itself on its high standard of journalism, has to protect its own reputation but also has a 'duty of care' for its young reporter.

What becomes of Joffe-Walt is a matter of relative indifference for Mr Lu. Although Joffe-Walt has been under a psychotherapist in London and suffered from what The Guardian describes as 'traumatic distress', Mr Lu is facing up to much more real day-to-day dangers on the mainland.

After evading the security police who have him under surveillance to drive three hours to a meeting for this interview, Mr Lu said of his ordeal: 'I am angry at what happened to me, but not surprised. It is something that cannot be avoided in the struggle for democracy in China. It is a price I have to pay.'