A Chen Guangcheng primer

The blind, self-taught legal activist Chen Guangcheng has escaped from his village in Shandong province where he was kept a prisoner in his own home and fled to Beijing. The New York Times quoted an official at the Chinese Ministry of State Security as saying Chen had made it to the U.S. embassy, though the State Department hasn't confirmed or denied if Chen is inside.

Chen become famous for filing a class action lawsuit in 2005 on behalf of woman who underwent forced sterilizations; he was later imprisoned for three years for "damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic" and then kept under de facto house arrest. Chen's house became a spot of pilgrimage for human rights activists, a sort of adventure tourism for Chinese who wanted to experience for themselves the thuggishness their country has to offer. Batman actor Christian Bale tried to visit as well but was forcibly turned away; "What I really wanted to do was to meet the man, shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is" Bale said at the time.  

It's a sensitive time for the United States to consider offering Chen asylum, as China is still reeling from the downfall of high ranking leader Bo Xilai, a scandal precipitated by an associate of his seeking refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. 

This is at least the second time that Chen has escaped from house arrest. "The night gives me an advantage," he told Time Magazine, after fleeing from an early house arrest in August 2005 to Beijing. "I can navigate better than people with sight can."

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


Middle East coverage is full of lies

It has not been a banner week for media coverage of the Arab world. Blame it on journalists unfamiliar with their subject matter, the demands of an ever-quicker news cycle, or simply salacious stories that were "too good to check" -- a number of stories that have made it into major media outlets recently are simply not true, or omit essential details of the tale.

First, and most infamously, we have the "farewell sex" episode. The story, which was reported in al-Arabiya and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Huffington Post, goes like this:  Islamists in the Egyptian parliament were contemplating a bill that would allow husbands to have sex with their wives for six hours after death. The only problem? As the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy writes, the story is "utter hooey." The rumor was initially advanced in an opinion piece by a partisan of deposed President Hosni Mubarak's regime, and caught fire in the international media from there - without anyone doing a basic fact-check.

While the "farewell sex" report is simply gross, the next story on the docket is the stuff of nightmares. The "buried alive" video reportedly shows soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime burying an opponent of the regime in a pit of dirt. The soldiers taunt the buried activist, telling him to say "there is no God but Bashar." Britain's Daily Mail and the Israeli outlet Ynet called it the "most horrific video" yet to emerge from the Syrian uprising -- a high bar.

This case is more difficult than the "farewell sex" story -- however, there do seem to be significant concerns about the video's authenticity. As this fact-check on Storyful  explains, the video was originally posted on the Facebook page of a group that coordinated anti-Assad activism in southern Syria. However, the video was removed from the page yesterday, soon after it began to attract scrutiny. Other concerns, which have also been raised by an editor at the BBC, relate to the clarity of the audio. It's important to point out that nobody can conclusively prove that the video is fake -- but there are more than enough red flags here to hold off on publishing it

If "farewell sex" and "buried alive" stories are examples of journalistic malpractice, the third example is more of a misdemeanor. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Vogue's infamous profile of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad had been scrubbed from its website. That's true, as far as it goes, but it's also old news -- the profile was scrubbed from Vogue's site roughly a year ago, shortly after Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters began. You'd also think that the Post would want to give credit to journalists like The Atlantic's Max Fisher, who covered this story months ago.

But fear not, journalists of the world. Two Lebanese comedians are currently on trial in what has been dubbed "the case of the Superman underpants." It all began in December 2009, when Edmund Hedded revealed a few square inches of his boxers during a stand-up comedy show at a bar in Lebanon. That was enough for him to be arrested and charged under an act in the penal code that condemns "frivolity" -- a crime that, if fully enforced, would condemn a significant portion of the population of Beirut to jail. Incredibly enough, this story actually appears to be true.