Covering the news in a real authoritarian country

August 7, 2018
Category: Newsletters

The mid-interview arrest of a critical academic is illustrative

The 84-year-old academic was talking on the phone on a Voice of America radio talk show from his home when Chinese security personnel barged in and seized him.

Before the phone went dead, a VOA audience could hear Sun Wenguang telling the intruders he was entitled to express his opinion. His whereabouts are unknown.

“We’re dealing with stuff like this every day,” says Amanda Bennett, a former news executive at Bloomberg and the Philadelphia Inquirer who is the director of the Voice of America. “Basically, these are the countries we operate in.”

In an interview Monday, Bennett says many of the 60 nations where the U.S.-funded news service operates are closed-information societies, without a free press. Reporters are often intimidated and have to tread carefully with sources, who could face retribution if they are identified as sharing information.

At a time when some commentators fear creeping authoritarianism at home, VOA is dealing with the full-throttle version abroad.

Sun Wenguang’s case is illustrative. The retired professor, a critic of China’s human rights policy, was talking on the VOA’s Mandarin TV show, "Issues & Opinions," when security officials entered his home. His "crime"? He had the audacity to suggest that China’s leader shouldn’t be allowed to rule for life, and that China’s trillion-dollar effort to build infrastructure to trade in central Asia and Africa comes at the expense of China’s poor.

Days earlier, a Chinese reporter was banned from social media in China merely for rolling her eyes at another reporter who asked a fawning question of a Chinese official. For a decade, Chinese citizens have grown up without Facebook, Google, Twitter or Instagram — all blocked by Chinese authorities.

Bennett said she has found during her travels that these societies deprived of free information are exactly the places that appreciate VOA’s work.

“The thing that I keep seeing,” says Bennett, "is that you have no idea how valuable information you can trust is until you are in a place that has none of it.”

Quick hits

'THE APPRENTICE': That’s the title of a new book on Russia interference in the 2016 election and the fallout, written by Pulitzer-winning Washington Post national security reporter Greg Miller. It’s out Oct. 2.

GONE: “The Alex Jones Show” and other content produced by his conspiracy-oriented Infowars organization have been removed from Facebook, Spotify, YouTube and all but one channel of Apple as hate speech.

BEYONCÉ: As her issue of Vogue was released, the pop star says in an interview that “we will all lose” if America does not embrace diversity and social change. “If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own.”

DETAINED: Leading world photographers and the Committee to Protect Journalists called for the release of a Bangladeshi photographer detained after he reported on demonstrations in the capital, Dhaka. Shahidul Alam was taken from his home by nearly 40 people who identified themselves as detectives, reported CPJ, which has documented multiple attacks on journalists in Bangladesh in recent weeks.

THREATS REPORTED: C-SPAN said Monday that it has reported to the FBI threats against CNN's Don Lemon and Brian Stelter. The threats came from a Friday morning call-in show where a caller said if he encountered the CNN journalists, "I'm going to shoot them." 

RESIGNED: Joanna Coles, chief content officer for Hearst Magazines. “It’s time for a new adventure,” said the former editor of Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan.

HIRED: Jamie Tarabay moves from CNN International in Hong Kong to her hometown of Sydney for The New York Times to expand its Australian coverage.

WOULD YOU ADVISE REPORTERS TO DELETE OLD TWEETS?: We asked, and here’s a response from Duane Stanford, chairman of the Atlanta Press Club and executive editor of Beverage Digest: “I’ve always viewed Twitter as an extension of the publication for which I write. Of course, voice is appropriate in writing and there was leeway to rightfully experiment with voice within Twitter and other social media. But it never made sense to me to range too far from what was appropriate in the core publication. But the Wild West is wild for a reason.”

TODAY’S WRITING TIP: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

What we’re reading

CLIMATE WATCH: Germany launches its earliest grape harvest after scorching summer, the AP reports.


THE BIGGEST FIRE IN CALIFORNIA HISTORY: The blaze scorched more than 283,000 acres by Monday evening, and was only 30 percent contained, the Los Angeles Times reports. The previous record had been set less than a year ago.


Want to get this briefing in your inbox every weekday morning? Sign up here.

Got a tip, a link, a suggestion, a tweet? We’re trying to make this roundup better every day. Please email me at or reach me @dabeard.

Have a great Tuesday.