By Andrew Loh
Barely a month after its mistake in reporting that a Bangladeshi had been killed in the Little India riot on 8 December 2013, the Straits Times seems to have once again got its facts wrong, or helped propagate a false story.
On 24 December, the Straits Times reported the publication of a report in Hong Kong about the execution of the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Straits Times report, by its senior writer Ching Cheong, was titled, “Jang’s execution bodes ill for China”.
It described how Jang was executed – by being “eaten up” by “120 hounds” which had been “starved for three days”.
“The execution of Jang Song Thaek, the No. 2 man in North Korea, took Beijing by surprise and will adversely affect bilateral relations.
“Beijing’s displeasure is expressed through the publication of a detailed account of Jang’s brutal execution in Wen Wei Po, its official mouthpiece, in Hong Kong, on Dec 12.
“According to the report, unlike previous executions of political prisoners which were carried out by firing squads with machine guns, Jang was stripped naked and thrown into a cage, along with his five closest aides. Then 120 hounds, starved for three days, were allowed to prey on them until they were completely eaten up. This is called “quan jue”, or execution by dogs.
“The report said the entire process lasted for an hour, with Mr Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader in North Korea, supervising it along with 300 senior officials.
“The horrifying report vividly depicted the brutality of the young North Korean leader. The fact that it appeared in a Beijing- controlled newspaper showed that China no longer cares about its relations with the Kim regime.”
The Straits Times apparently had no doubt that the story was true. It continued:
“The incendiary story, plus the stern editorial, provided a measure of the extent of Beijing’s loathing, which is quite understandable.
“In purging a top official known for his close ties with Beijing in such a brutal manner, Pyongyang did not hide its antagonism towards China.”
The Straits Times’ report apparently went viral worldwide the next few days, with many news outlets citing it.
Here are some of these reports around the world, all citing the Straits Times’ report:
Times of India – “North Korea’s Kim Jong-un made starving dogs eat naked uncle alive in cage: Report”:
The Daily Mail – “Stripped naked, thrown into a cage and torn apart by 120 starving dogs: How Kim Jong Un had ‘scum’ uncle executed”:
USA TODAY – “Report: Kim Jong Un fed uncle alive to 120 starved dogs”:
New York Daily News – “Release the hounds! Kim Jong Un executed uncle by feeding him to pack of starving dogs”:
The Nation (Thailand) – “Kim sentenced his uncle to be eaten alive by dogs”:
Even Fox News – “North Korean leader fed uncle to starving dogs, report says”:
Soon, however, doubts about the report were raised.
The Telegraph in the United Kingdom raised the alarm on 3 January., and urged caution in believing the story. “The source is questionable, too,” the Telegraph said. “The incident was first reported by the Wen Wei Po newspaper on December 12, yet it’s only now that The Straits Times has commented upon it – and only now that the Western media has started to take notice.”
Saying that the Straits Times has “often been accused of being the mouthpiece of Singapore’s ruling party and is staunchly anti-communist”, the paper said “political bias is possible” in its report.
Slate, a popular US-based magazine, also raised doubts about the truth of the story:
“Did this really happen? We don’t know! Experts seem skeptical. It first appeared in English in the Singapore-based Straits Times, which cited a three-week-old story in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong paper Wen Wei Po, which was itself pretty thinly sourced. Perhaps not quite grasping how the viral Internet works, the Straits Times reporter chose to lead with how the execution would ‘adversely affect bilateral relations’ between North Korea and China rather than the naked man being eaten alive by ravenous dogs.”
The Washington Post also chimed in with doubts about the story.
In his article titled, “No, Kim Jong Un probably didn’t feed his uncle to 120 hungry dogs”, its writer Max Fisher gave five reasons why the story is “probably – probably – not true.”
“The story was first reported by a minor Hong Kong outlet on Dec. 12, was picked up by a Singaporean newspaper on Dec. 24 and since late Thursday has been sweeping through nearly every corner of the U.S. media. The only problem is that it’s probably – probably – not true.”
Like Slate, he too questioned the source of the story:
“First and foremost, let’s consider the source. The story originated in a Hong Kong newspaper called Wen Wei Po, which oddly makes the claim without citing a source. With a couple of high-quality exceptions, Hong Kong media have a reputation for sensationalist and tabloidy stories that do not always turn out to be true. But, even by Hong Kong standards, Wen Wei Po is considered an unusually unreliable outlet. A recent study found that, out of Hong Kong’s 21 newspapers, Wen Wei Po ranks 19th for credibility.”
This view is also supported by The Lede, a column in the New York Times.
In an article titled, “Inside the tale of North Korea execution by ravenous dog”, its writers Edward Wong and Choe-Sang Hun said:
“The death-by-dog story got more traction online starting Dec. 24, when a commentary published in The Straits Times, based in Singapore, said the fact that Wen Wei Po ran such a lurid article was a sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘displeasure’ at North Korea. It called Wen Wei Po the party’s ‘official mouthpiece’ in Hong Kong.
“The writer of the commentary, Ching Cheong, was a journalist for Wen Wei Po before joining The Straits Times. In April 2005, while employed by the Singapore newspaper, he was detained by Chinese security officers during a reporting trip in southern China. Despite protests by other journalists and human rights organizations, Chinese officials imprisoned him for three years on charges of spying for Taiwan.”
The Lede writers dismissed the Straits Times’ claim that Wen Wei Po is an official mouthpiece of the Chinese government.
“Though Wen Wei Po has taken editorial stands that favor party policy, it is not an official mouthpiece of Beijing. And some scholars in Hong Kong have criticized what they call the newspaper’s low editorial standards.”
As for the execution of Jang by “120 hounds” story, “all that anyone seems to agree on is that Mr. Jang is dead.”
This is the second time within a month that the Straits Times had carried reports which were either false or were most probably false, and which had been picked up worldwide.
Its December report on the riot in Little India said – wrongly – that a Bangladeshi worker was killed, sparking the riot.
The worker, in fact, was an Indian national.
The report was picked up by various news outlets around the world, including The Guardian in the UK and the Huffington Post in the US.
The flawed report prompted the Bangladeshi government to issue a statement condemning it, saying that the report “was not based on facts.”
[Read here: “Little India riot – mis-reporting, falsehoods and speculation“.] In the past few days and weeks the Straits Times has also published wrong (and highly embarrassing) news bits about the Marina Coastal Expressway, and had wrongly reported that the Indonesian police had raided an “anti-terror group”.
Its lack of editorial oversight, however, is not a new occurrence. The paper, praised mostly by those who wield power over it – ie, the government and its ministers – has always been viewed by many Singaporeans as one lacking any professional standards of reporting. Indeed, its readership has been falling in recent years.
Last year, its chief editor, Warren Fernandez, and its parent company, Singapore Press Holdings, were issued “stern warnings” for breaking the law by conducting and publishing the results of a poll during the by-election in Punggol East.
This latest apparently wrong report about the death of Jang is just another example in a series of poor, sub-standard reporting, and the absence of fact-checking before publication.
The paper, however, has not apologised for any of the series of false and wrongful reports so far – such as this one below just today (6 January 2014) on the front page. . It falsely identified the former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia as the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina:
It has also kept silent about the story of the 120 hounds eating up Jang after the doubts about its validity were raised.Having said that, perhaps it is appropriate to give the Straits Times the benefit of the doubt on the Jang execution story. Perhaps the story is true. But the fact that several highly-regarded news outlets, such as the BBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times, have raised doubts about its veracity, the Straits Times should provide proof that the “120 hounds” did indeed tear Jang and his aides apart.
After all, the Minister of Communications and Information (MCI) did recently say that “we expect high standards in the physical world of news reporting.”
The minister had also said that “it’s important to make sure that [the public] read the ‘right thing’, insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately.”
He had also earlier slammed a blogger for allegedly spreading disinformation when the blogger posted what his friend had said about the distribution of face masks during the haze in June last year.
Similarly, while the Straits Times may have only related a story from another source, it should also be brought to task if that story turned out to be untrue – especially when its report had gone viral worldwide.