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Maritime tragedy revives old questions about state media

In cinematic tradition, when the cheeky and villainous antihero is confronted over his own lies, he professes simply, “I lied.” Rapt viewers are then tempted to forgive this villain because, after all, he is honest about his own dishonesty, even though he is more or less forced into it.

Far more evil and despicable are those who lie about their fabrications because people unfortunate enough to have to deal with them simply cannot tell whether something they are being told is just another lie in a chain reaction of lies.

Such was the case in the aftermath of October's fatal ferry crash off Lamma Island in Hong Kong waters. When families of the victims were beside themselves with grief, the China News Service (CNS) — one of mainland China's official, state-funded news agencies — added insult to injury on Oct. 3 by lying about China's role in the search and rescue operations.

The news organ's motive is readily understandable. The maritime tragedy had fallen on Oct. 1, or National Day. At a time when national fervor should be high, the people — especially the skeptical Hong Kong public — ought to be persuaded to express their “heartfelt” gratitude to “the Motherland” and above all, “the Party,” as their Chinese mainland compatriots often do in the aftermath of natural disasters.

So in brazen disregard of the facts, CNS circulated on its own wire circuit a report from Beijing claiming that “95 people have been rescued by the professional Chinese rescue fleet” and that Premier Wen Jiabao has instructed the Ministry of Transport and its maritime search and rescue center to spare no effort in helping the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government organize search and rescue operations.

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