The Strange Tale Of A Chinese Interview With A Charlie Hebdo Witness
An odd postscript to the dramatic events in Paris that says much about the evolving state of the media in China, which sometimes can be as "free" as it wants to be.
BEIJING — I received an unexpected email from a Chinese witness to last week's terror attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The note came from Wang Fanghui, who was my classmate in college. He has been living in France and I haven't seen him for more than 20 years.
Wang came face-to-face with the two masked gunmen who killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo"s offices on January 7. They briefly entered his office, he says, and one of the masked men fired a single shot. If this is true, Wang witnessed the first shot of an attack that shook a nation.
Moments later, the men stormed into Charlie's Hebdo"s nearby offices to do their killing, violence that has been condemned by leaders from around the world, including President Xi Jinping.
Wang lived to tell his story. But he said the Chinese version of it, which aired on China Central Television (CCTV), made him look like a coward. Wang's complaint centers on how he was introduced. He says a CCTV anchor made him seem to be too scared to speak publicly until the gunmen were dead, and that a reporter incorrectly claims that she had to persuade him to give an interview. In fact, he had already spoken to French journalists.
These distortions hurt his reputation, Wang says, and they have been repeated by other Chinese news outlets.
Wang's complaint is not trivial. The version of this article on Caixin Media Co."s Chinese website has received more reader comments than any story we have ever published. Our readers have taken the opportunity to do some venting about CCTV and state media in general for not faithfully adhering to the facts in their reporting. Accuracy is the first rule of journalism, and articles about terror attacks are no exception. This holds true whether the violence occurs in Paris or New York or Kunming.
"The mightier a state news agency is, the more likely its reporters are to act like film directors and script writers," one Caixin reader commented. Another wrote, "Adding highly colored details is what they do." Many of the other comments echo these sentiments.
Wang wrote to me in hopes that I might explain to him why the CCTV reporter who interviewed him would have put words in his mouth. I cannot. I don't have the answer either.
A translation of his email from Chinese to English follows. It has been edited for clarity.
Dear Zhang Jin,
You probably have heard by now about what happened to me. I would not be surprised if you don't believe it. Even I have struggled to believe that the thing happened to me.
When the attack on Charlie occurred that day, at around 11:22 am (I figured out the timing based on the recorded time of our reporting to the police), I was in my office and I heard some noise by the door. I turned my head and saw two men masked with only their eyes and mouth uncovered. They were wearing black jackets, black gloves and black bullet-proof vests. There were two AK-47s pointed at me.
My first reaction was that they must be from the police's special forces unit or the like. One of them, however, quickly turned around and went outside the door, leaving the other pointing his gun at me and requiring me to stay down.
I did not respond to his order immediately and was foolish enough to ask, my voice trembling: "Who are you?" He replied (in French): "Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you." And he raised his hands and fired a shot.
I fell back a step and raised my arms in the air, repeating "OK, OK." I was hoping they would just grab what they wanted. I thought they were robbers.
Then the man outside seemed to have made some sort of signal to move and the one who just fired the shot bolted out. I closed the door behind them and caught a glimpse of their backs and heard them shouting.
To this day I still cannot understand why the two killers came to my office. Did they make a mistake or were they trying to clear potential threats?
The air in the office was filled with the smell of gunpowder. There was a bullet hole in a window. We rushed to call the police … and at the same time, the sound of gunshots overwhelmed the building.
Then the police, firefighters and ambulances arrived en masse at the scene and the street was cordoned off. The police needed witnesses. They gathered evidence at the scene and questioned me in my office. I tried my best to recall every fine detail of my standoff with them.
Word spread quickly and got tangled up. Some were saying there were three gunmen, some saying five, and others saying two. I was certain that I saw only two, and there were no rocket launchers, only two guns.
It was not until almost nine in the evening that I left the closed street. Some of my friends had waited for me outside the cordon lines the whole afternoon. They accompanied me to dinner, trying to calm me down. I did not utter a word that night, nor manage to get any sleep.
The next day, calls and voicemails from media requesting interviews with me swamped my mobile phone. I remember my friends at the dinner table advising me against taking interviews, and my mother, who is far away in Nanjing, repeatedly told me to keep my head down and, if necessary, come back to China.
My heart was still throbbing with fear. However, being a media worker myself, I know the public has a right to know. The first gunshot was fired in my presence. I could hardly justify not bearing witness to that.
So I agreed to an interview with France's largest TV station, TF1, and we talked for more than three minutes live. The guy from the TV station said they could blur my face with mosaic and even change my voice if I wanted. I said there was no need. I put my fears behind when I decided to step up and take the interview.
The program got much attention.
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CCTV headquarter. Photo: Dave Proffer
On the afternoon of Jan. 9, a Chinese friend told me that the CCTV was preparing a feature report on the incident and one of its European correspondents, whose surname is also Wang, wanted to talk to me. I thought it about for a second. There was no reason to turn down a TV station from my homeland.
Considering that she was already late to the coverage, I did my best to find her things that I thought could add depth to her report, such as a picture of the shell case and photos of the first rescue workers arriving at the scene. I even took advantage of my working in the building to get her snapshots of the facade and its stairwell using her mobile phone.
She asked me during the interview, "Did you get enough courage to take the interview because you saw the two gunmen were killed?"
I did not give the question much thought and answered it honestly. I said I had already taken an interview with France's leading TV station and I had no intention whatsoever to hide my face and identity.
The CCTV program debuted on the morning news show's Zhao Wen Tian Xia.
I was busy at the time. One of my friends came upon it first and she screamed out loud to me, "Wang, the show says you are a coward!"
I rushed over to take a look. An anchor was saying, "We talked to a special witness, a Chinese person, who refused to take media interviews after the homicides, and only put away his apprehension and agreed to have an exclusive interview with us after learning that the two killers had been shot dead."
Then it was the reporter, speaking while walking up to the camera. She said she managed to persuade me to talk to her after the killers died. Then the interview began.
I was shocked and stupefied. I remember giving her a different answer, but why is she lying?
My friends in France who knew what happened were angered. They knew what it meant for me personally to face the media one day after having a gun pointed at my head. But everything turned out wrong in the CCTV program.
They also emailed me some Chinese newspaper reports about the CCTV program and they all said I was able to put my fears behind me and talk to the CCTV after the killers died.
I'm not a hero and it was mere coincidence that I faced a killer's gun barrel. I stood out and talked to the media after a narrow escape from death just so I could begin with my healing process psychologically.
But the reporter's upside-down remark has left my attempt in ruins and hurt my reputation. To say the least, it was a stab to an open wound.
I simply don't understand why a journalist would have called white black when faced with the facts. Besides, the sentences she added were trivial and had nothing to do with the point of the news.
Zhang Jin, buddy, you are also a media worker. Why did she make up the words she said? Do you have any idea?