One dollar per person in China –$1.3 billion — that’s the amount a Chinese primary school teacher and a beautician are claiming in a law suit for slander against CNN for saying the country’s leaders were “goons and thugs.”
The legal action, filed in a New York federal court, is the latest incident in a escalating row over Western media coverage of the clampdown on unrest in Tibet in March and disruptions to the Beijing Olympic torch relay abroad.
New York-based beauty therapist Liang Shubing and Beijing-based teacher Li Lilan said commentator Jack Cafferty’s commentary this month had insulted all Chinese people and “intentionally caused mental harm” to the plaintiffs.
“The $1.3 billion averages out to $1 per Chinese person, so it isn’t much,” one lawyer told Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper.
Meanwhile in China, 14 lawyers have sued the Atlanta-based cable channel saying Cafferty’s comments “violated the dignity and reputation of the Chinese people.”
They want CNN to issue a public apology and pay each of them 100 yuan in compensation for mental distress.
The country’s tightly controlled media has carried extensive reports this month accusing Western news outlets of bias in the reporting of the Tibetan riots.
Thousands of Chinese people have protested in front of the French retail giant, Carrefour’s, 122 stores in China, angry at attacks by pro-Tibet demonstrators on the Olympic torch during the relay in Paris and by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that he might boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August.
Cafferty made the remarks that have so incensed the Chinese on April 9. He said the U.S. continued to import “their junk with the lead paint on them and the poisoned pet food,” referring to the trade deficit with China.
“So I think our relationship with China has certainly changed,” he said. “I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
CNN said Cafferty was expressing an opinion about the government, but Beijing has demanded an apology, saying CNN was “not sincere” and accused the network of trying to drive a wedge between the Chinese people and leadership.
The media is under strict government control in China and there is no tradition of critical comment being tolerated in the press.
Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders ranked China 163rd out of 169 countries in its 2007 press freedom index, while rights groups say 30 journalists have been jailed for their reporting in China.
The government’s reaction to the legal action has been tacit approval.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu described it as “spontaneous activity by Chinese civilians” and it was waiting for a response to the government’s call for a full apology.
“We hope CNN will take this seriously, because what CNN said and did has not only hurt China’s feelings, but also CNN’s own image.”