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An Endangered Tiger, Photoshop, and the People’s (Republic) Right to Know
Mara Hvistendahl, 16 Dec 07
Article Photo

In October, the forestry department of China’s Shaanxi province released photos taken by a local farmer of a South China tiger. The photos would have marked the first sighting of the animal, long believed functionally extinct, since 1964. But netizens promptly questioned their authenticity, pointing out that they looked Photoshopped.

The incident has sparked a media frenzy, lawsuits, and spoof photos (think housecats in the jungle). Evening news shows are trotting out an artist who says he painted the tiger that appears in some of the photos for a wildlife calendar. Viewers have been subjected to stripe-by-stripe comparisons of the tigers with possible image sources, speculation from photography experts, and testimony from tiger handlers. There are “pro-tiger” and “anti-tiger” factions. Online, the hullabaloo is called “Tigergate.”

The local government’s interest in the photos is funding: if it can prove that the tiger exists, it can attract conservation money. And the truth is, of course, important for species protection. But the incident’s implications extend far beyond that. It's significant for showing how the Internet can be an effective tool in checking an otherwise unresponsive government.

One Tigergate-related lawsuit is of particular interest. China Digital Times has a translation of an article from Caijing magazine describing the case, which was brought by Beijing lawyer Jinsong Hao. Hao makes a compelling argument:

Hao argued in his complaint that he has the right to request the reconsideration because he is part of the general public that Shaanxi Forestry Office gave the false information to. As a taxpayer, he has the right to receive truthful information from the government, and the right to refuse false information. The Constitution grants every citizen the right of freedom of speech, but how can the citizens enjoy the right of freedom of speech if the government always provides them with false information or no information at all, Hao questioned in his complaint….

Hao said that this case exemplified that truth is more endangered than tigers in China right now. The credibility of the government has come to a critical moment when the public questioned so strongly the authenticity of the obviously fake photos. As the highest authority on wildlife, the State Forestry Bureau must clearly respond to the questions asked by the public over the forged photos of South China tigers. Any attempt to confuse the public with vague concepts will arouse further public anger and discontent, and cause social instability.

“As a citizen, I have the right to know the truth, ” Hao said.

As the lawsuit suggests, this isn’t about whether or not the tiger still roams Shaanxi. It’s about the people’s right to correct information – a right that has hardly been closely guarded in China.

The controversy seems to be spurring a broader campaign for government truth and accountability. When the government released photos of the moon it said were taken on its Chang’e 1 mission in late November, chatrooms promptly filled with people questioning whether they had been filched from NASA.

In this latest case, it looks like the photo may turn out to be real. But the skepticism with which Internet users greeted them, at least, bodes well for the future.

UPDATE: The first round of public fact-checking has now yielded a response. China's State Forestry Administration capitulated to chat-room demands, asking that the local forestry bureau investigate the photos' authenticity.

Image: Sleestak66

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Dr. Paul Sereno speaks out loudly and clearly: “This is going to be the century where science either saves the planet, or we fail as a species.”

Dear Paul,

Seldom do I agree so completely with a single statement as I do with your statement above. It seems to me that the humankind has come to a crossroads, as many are recognizing in our time, and has a choice. We can choose to be guided by God’s great gift to humanity of good science and find the courage to do what is necessary to preserve our species and life as we know it or we can choose to stay the course of the predominant culture by overpopulating the planet, relentlessly expanding economic globalization activities and increasing per human over-consumption, which would lead most likely to the failure of humanity…....among other catastrophic occurrences and consequences.



Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 19 Dec 07


Does how “I feel” or how “we feel” or how anybody else “feels” about the predicament involving the human-induced global challenges that are already visible on the far horizon have any meaning or value? So what?

There is a light in the offing at the end of a tunnel covering the “primrose path” we have set out for our children to march along to reach their future. I think magically and also remain somehow wishful for the children’s long-term wellbeing, for environmental protection and preserving Earth’s body; however, please understand that deep within me is a keen sense of foreboding for the children because the light at the end of the tunnel, at this very moment, appears to be moving toward all of us…

Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 19 Dec 07

- “As a citizen, I have the right to know the truth, ” Hao said.

Good luck with that attitude in a country known worldwide for its censorship. Start at trying to find somebody who knows what a picture of a man in front of a row of tanks means.

Posted by: skOre on 20 Dec 07



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