Top E.U. Diplomat: Disinformation Report Not Watered Down for China

BRUSSELS — Facing pointed criticism from lawmakers on Thursday, the European Union’s top diplomat denied that Chinese officials had pressured his team to soften language in a recent report on disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

The report, released late last week, described Chinese and Russian efforts to spread falsehoods and propaganda about the pandemic. But The New York Times reported that the language had been toned down amid criticism from China. The final report differed in key areas from both an internal version and an earlier draft that had been planned for public release, according to interviews, emails and documents seen by The Times.

The European Union’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that Chinese officials had objected to the report, but said such objections are “are the daily bread of diplomacy.” He said the revisions had been part of the normal editing process. “There was no watering down of our findings,” Mr. Borrell said.

Lawmakers appeared skeptical. Thierry Mariani, a French member of the European Parliament, told Mr. Borrell that his team had been “caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”

The edited reports, and the internal rift they caused, highlighted the diplomatic sensitivities around China’s attempts to recast its role in the coronavirus pandemic. The virus originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and officials there initially covered it up.

The report was a routine roundup of publicly available information and news reports. The internal report, and a version that was drafted for public release, both dedicated separate sections to state-sponsored disinformation by China and Russia. In the final version, those sections were folded into the rest of the report, and many of the examples related to China’s actions were included at the bottom, under the heading “Other selected activities.”

While the final report remained critical of Chinese disinformation efforts, key sentences from earlier versions were omitted, including: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.” Other language was softened.

“Who interfered? Which Chinese official put pressure? At what level? What means of pressure?” asked Hilde Vautmans, a Belgian member of the European Parliament. “I think Europe needs to know that. Otherwise you’re losing all credibility.”

Mr. Borrell declined to answer that question or discuss the revisions that had been made in each draft. “Did China put pressure? Look, it’s clear and evident that China expressed their concerns,” he said. “I am not going to reveal how it was done because we don’t explain publicly this kind of the diplomatic context.”

Mr. Borrell said he was not personally involved in the report. The revisions created dissent among the analysts of government disinformation who had written the report, emails show. One analyst called it self-censoring in an email and said it would set a dangerous precedent.

Mr. Borrell suggested that particular email had been written knowing that it would be made public and told lawmakers not to be swayed by the personal views of one analyst.

Europe’s counter-disinformation team is both uniquely ambitious and occasionally hamstrung. European Union analysts produce regular reports documenting propaganda and disinformation, pulling worldwide analyses into a single repository that names governments, bots and websites that push falsehoods.

But that effort sometimes causes headaches for the diplomatic service. A report last year on pre-election propaganda, for instance, stripped out all references to Russian support for certain European political groups. The anti-disinformation group, called the East Stratcom Task Force, is unique because its biggest supporters — countries in Central and Eastern Europe with a history of Communist influence — are also among its loudest critics. They say the task force has been underfunded and undersupported and should be more ambitious.

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