Non-interference in domestic affairs is one of the principles of international law. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Identity and Democracy Group (ID) recently requested answers from the European Commission regarding reports from the international press that the European External Action Service (EEAS) had come under pressure to modify a report which raised the alarm on a global disinformation campaign orchestrated by China to deflect attention from the COVID-19 spread as well as enhance the reputation on China against increasing criticism.
The German Government has revealed that Chinese diplomats courted its Ministry of Interior in order for China’s handling of the pandemic to be cast in a favourable light. Similarly, according to Reuters and Politico.eu, the East Stratcom task force of the EEAS allegedly greatly watered down its report which shed light on the information war being waged by Beijing over COVID-19. The pressure was applied against a fear of retaliatory measures alluded to by a ‘Chinese High Representative’. According to Reuters, this led to a sentence in the report being removed which stating that “China has continued to organise a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the spread of the epidemic and improve its international image’ using ‘overt and covert tactics’”. The redacted version of the report states that official sources supported by various governments, including those of Russia and China, have continued to widely disseminate conspiracy theories and misinformation to the EU public.
The New York Times also claim that they have had access to the original document, which allegedly differs from the version that was ultimately published, three days behind schedule, on 24 April. According to online reports by Der Spiegel, Chinese diplomats are said to have demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the EU regarding the publication, issuing a statement that this is not very good for China-EU cooperation.
In April, MEPs Lídia Pereira, Paulo Rangel, Jose Manuel Fernandes, Maria da Graca Carvalho, Alvaro Amaro and Claudia Monteiro de Aguiar , all from the EPP Group, filed a parliamentary question to the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. The MEPs asked “as the head of the EEAS, the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative are you aware of any exchanges that took place with Chinese diplomats on the subject of the report of 24 April?” and “were any changes made to this report between 21 and 24 April as a result of diplomatic pressure exerted by the People’s Republic of China?”
In May, additional EPP MEPs Ludek Niedermayer, Stanislav Polcak, Jiri Pospísil, Michaela Sojdrova, Tomas Zdechovsky, Ivan Stefanec, Michal Wiezik, Vladimír Bilcík, Miriam Lexmann asked for further clarifications from High Representative Borrell after the meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs on 30 April regarding the EEAS Special Report on the Narratives and Disinformation around the COVID-19. They asked “could the VP/HR explain in greater detail the nature of the two versions of the document, the first published on 20 April 2020 and the second on 24 April 2020, and could he say whether they have different authors and/or were written independently of one another?”
They also asked “were the views of the People’s Republic of China on this report communicated to the EEAS by either formal or informal means, are there any records of this exchange, and more generally, is there a mechanism preventing the analytical reports of the EEAS from being influenced by external factors such as third countries and their representatives?” Their final question enquired if “there is a need for a China StratCom task force?”
Also in May, ID MEP Mathilde Androuet enquired “what measures does the Commission intend to implement to increase transparency in the management of information about China?”
At the same time, ID MEPs Christine Anderson and Lars Patrick Berg posed three pointed questions regarding the ‘Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation around the COVID-19/coronavirus Pandemic’ asking had the article been amended several times, whether any Chinese individuals or organisations had attempted to influence the content of the article and asking for clarification on “how trustworthy EU measures on disinformation are given that publications need to be revised several times?”
On 15 July High Representative/Vice-President Borrell gave the first answer stating that “EEAS is a diplomatic service and therefore interacts daily with representatives of third countries, listening to their views and assessments of EU’s policies”. He further reported that “EEAS has never bowed to any outside pressure — including from China — in preparing its reports, including on such crucial issues as disinformation at the time of pandemic, where transparency is key. The content and timing of EEAS’s public assessments on disinformation trends around COVID-19 (called ‘EEAS Special reports’) is determined by the EEAS alone”.
Vice President Borrell emphasized that “the specific case in the question involved two different documents for different audiences. One was internal (for EU institutions and Member States) and the other one for public consumption — the EEAS Special report. There are naturally similarities between them, as the public reports often are based on the insights and the information presented in the internal documents”.
He further explained that “the EEAS has issued four public reports — the latest one on 20 May — and each of these very clearly points out state-sponsored disinformation campaigns and names the actors behind them — including China” and that “the space dedicated to Chinese activities has increased with each report, which shows that there has been no intention of ‘watering down’ any findings, however uncomfortable they are to China”.
In early August, High Representative/Vice-President Borrell responded to the other MEP questions with the same answer adding that “as is the case for all EEAS publications on disinformation, there are internal procedures in place to ensure the appropriate structure and quality and unassailable phraseology of conclusions” and “given the sensitive nature of the information, every claim is verified before publishing”.
He also informed the MEPs that “the EEAS Strategic Communications Division was recently reorganised to allow more focus on tackling disinformation” and that “an expert on China was recruited and EEAS is looking into options to strengthen work in this area, including through secondments from Member States”.
Photo Credit : http://www.eias.org/news/the-new-eu-leadership-and-the-future-of-eu-china-relations/