EU chief denies disinformation report was watered down for China

The full interview with Ursula von der Leyen airs on Amanpour Monday 2pm ET - 8pm CET - 5pm HKT on CNN International and on Monday evening on PBS across America (local listings vary).

London (CNN)European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has denied allegations that the EU watered down a report on coronavirus disinformation after being pressured from China.

The allegations arose after Politico Europe quoted an excerpt from a draft version of the report on April 21, which explicitly accused China of running "a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image."
The report appears to have been delayed, and when published on April 24, the excerpt on China had been replaced with a watered-down version.
    In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, who asked von der Leyen if China had pressured the EU to change the report's language, the EU chief denied the allegation and swiftly diverted her answer to the issue of lessons learned from the pandemic.
    "No, this is an independent report done by the external service, and indeed what I think what we will have to do -- I was talking about lessons learned. If there's one lesson we've learned, that is we did not have robust data," she said.
    When pressed again and asked whether the EU was self-censoring, von der Leyen denied the accusation and turned to the issue of unfit medical material coming out of China as an example of the EU being unafraid to criticize Beijing.
    "No, not at all, what I think is important is that we have [made] very clear, our position. And you know that there were many critical voices concerning material coming from China that was not fit for purpose. So, there are points when there are critics that have to be issued at the level of the European Union. It happens, and we do that, and there are other points that go well," she said.
    After the report's publication, The New York Times cited EU diplomatic sources saying that China had put pressure on the bloc. The Times also published parts of a leaked email that showed how the draft report was on the verge of publication when Esther Osorio, a senior adviser to the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, ordered it be held.
    When CNN reached out to Osorio for comment, a spokesperson from the EU's Foreign Affairs and Security Policy responded, saying that the emails published by the New York Times article were reported out of context. The spokesperson, Virginie Battu-Henriksson, did not respond to the question of whether Osorio personally called for the draft to be held.
    She denied that the report's language had been changed and said, rather, that the original document cited by Politico was not actually a draft report.
    "The allegations seen in some media refer to the fact that there are two different documents. One, the Information Environment Assessment, is a document for internal information and consumption. The other one, the EEAS special report, is for public consumption. The public reports often contain similar information to the internal documents, as it was the case with the report published on Friday and the last Information Environment Assessment," she said.
    The original excerpt explicitly accusing China of a disinformation campaign was replaced with a softened sentence: "Official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and -- to a lesser extent -- China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation."
    Borrell faced questions from European lawmakers on Thursday over whether the document was delayed and then revised.
    "Did China put pressure? Look, it's clear and evident that China expressed their concerns," Borrell said during the specially convened meeting of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
    "I can assure you that no changes have been introduced to the report published last week to allay the concerns of a third party, in this case China."

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