Controversial tv documentary about china: propaganda prevented?

SWR has decided not to broadcast the documentary "Wuhan – Chronicle of an Outbreak". The station gives legal reasons for the decision.

Scene from the documentary "Wuhan – Chronicle of an Outbreak" Photo: SWR

For some, it is clear that SWR has narrowly avoided the catastrophe of allowing itself to be harnessed to the cart of Chinese propaganda.

This is the view of the Beijing correspondents of Suddeutsche Zeitung and FAZ. For them, the documentary "Wuhan – Chronicle of an Outbreak" is unacceptable. The 45-minute film, which was supposed to be shown on Monday evening on the renowned program "Story im Ersten," describes the outbreak of the corona pandemic in the Chinese metropolis.

It works mainly with footage from the state production company China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC), part of the Chinese propaganda apparatus. According to the FAZ, the SWR documentary helps to make people forget the initial phase of the pandemic’s cover-up.

But the film can also be seen differently: as a successful documentary approach to the outbreak of the pandemic. Even if this is necessarily incomplete due to the lack of media freedom in China and the inability to see for oneself on site, and allows for various interpretations.

No longer able to form one’s own judgment

For the film is not a CICC production. Rather, the German TV production company Gebruder Beetz, commissioned by SWR, edited a new film from the approximately 67 hours of raw material supplied by CICC. All statements made in the CICC were sensitively counter-researched by SWR and Beetz and are classified and evaluated in the film by German experts such as virologist Christian Drosten or Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute.

The real problem is that viewers cannot form their own opinion. Because it did not come to the broadcast. According to SWR, the reasons for this, as communicated on the day of the planned broadcast, were of a legal nature. It was only realized at the last minute that "the production company commissioned was unable to grant SWR the necessary rights to the film material used".

Did the award-winning production company Beetz ("Cleaners") and the SWR documentary department simply stumble over the fine print? The reservations about the film began a week before the planned broadcast. The taz reported on it.

"When Beijing delivers the pictures," was the title of the article by SZ China correspondent Lea Deuber. "The commissioned German production company did not send its own team to China. Instead, it relied on material from the propaganda authorities," it continued in abbreviated form in the lead.

The rest of the report was a bit more differentiated. In it, NDR was also allowed to distance itself from the project. The station is responsible for the ARD studio in Beijing and stated that its correspondents were "not involved in this SWR project and do not provide any support. This is how it is written when you want to derail something.

Not an apron organization of the CP

The FAZ works in a similar way and – knowing about the film, which was available to journalists in the ARD press section – now gleefully cites a documentary about China’s president and CP leader Xi Jinping, made with CICC assistance, as a comparable example.

The 2017 film also worked with an independent production company called Meridian Line Films. Their credibility had been used by the Chinese propaganda apparatus.

However, according to experts, the head of Meridian Line Films at the time was also the second man at the CICC. The FAZ mentions this, too, and thus makes an absurd comparison with "Wuhan – Chronik eines Ausbruchs" (Wuhan – Chronicle of an Outbreak): There may be a lot of criticism of the SWR documentary, but the production company Gebruder Beetz is not an apron organization of the Chinese CP.

They would have been happy to face the criticism of the film, says managing director Christian Beetz. The fact that everyone is now being deprived of this important discussion is the real disaster. Which interests and conflicts influenced SWR’s decision remains open for the time being.

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