By David Bandurski — Chinese journalists, and particularly Chinese investigative reporters, have never had it easy. Despite the fact that “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督), or “watchdog journalism,” has been recognized officially by the CCP as a crucial form of monitoring since 1987, there have been few protections and a great number of restrictions on their work — from old-fashioned censorship and trumped-up libel charges, to grinding commercial pressures.
But according to some reports, things have gotten much worse for journalists — and, again, particularly for investigative reporters — in the last few years, owing to a number of factors.
The CCP’s central directive against the practice of cross-regional reporting, or yidi jiandu (异地监督), in which journalists pursue stories outside of their administrative territory (say, a neighboring province) to avoid censure by their direct superiors, has certainly had a chilling effect — although the practice does still go on. [See my article, "Jousting with China's Monsters"].
One of the most damaging factors, however, is the noxious mixture of entrenched local power and rampant corruption driven by breakneck commercial growth in lieu of institutional checks and balances.
Add to this a looming crisis of credibility in China’s media, the lack of a press law to protect journalists (a controversial issue), and declining public respect for their work, and you have the perfect recipe for violence against reporters.
Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, and other publications of the Nanfang Press Group, which have traditionally led the charge in the arena of Chinese watchdog journalism, have been some of the only newspapers in China to consistently pay attention to the professional, political, legal and ethical challenges facing Chinese journalists today. In recent months Southern Weekend in particular has given much attention to the work of Beijing lawyer Zhou Ze (周泽), who has focused on growing violence against journalists in China as one of his particular concerns.
In the following interview, published in the most recent edition of Southern People Weekly, another strong publication in the Nanfang arsenal, Zhou discusses the growing pressure on journalists, and how this is having a “chilling effect” on the profession as a whole.
Incidentally, readers may notice in the introduction to the interview what looks like an indirect but very timely swipe at the row over Google in China.
“Why are More and More Journalists Being Beaten and Arrested?”
Southern People Weekly
January 18, 2010
Criminal cases against journalists have been on the rise, a number of them clearly acts of retribution against reporters who have written exposes. This could potentially have a chilling effect on the work of journalists as a whole.
If you Google the phrase “journalist beaten” (记者被打) right now, you’ll return 14 million results. Journalists who are charged with “protecting freedom of speech” are being beaten, arrested, and “sentenced for accepting bribes.” This has become a peculiar trait of China’s media ecology. In the most recent case, Fu Hua (傅桦), a reporter from First Financial Daily, was sentenced to three years in prison for accepting bribes.
The work of the journalist necessitates being on the scene, where the news is happening, and conveying facts to the general public. But when the basic safety of news reporters cannot be secured, or when the very safety of the person is threatened, will journalists dare reveal the truth and the facts? This being the case, won’t the crucial force of supervision by public opinion [or "watchdog journalism"] be weakened?
In this issue, we interview China Youth University of Political Science and Law professor and Beijing Wentian Law Firm partner Zhou Ze (周泽), who has represented a number of journalists who have faced arrest and prosecution.
SW: Why have you been so interested in journalists as a group?
Zhou Ze: I worked for eight years as a journalist myself, and I found that the ordinary people, particularly those who faced injustice, looked to journalists with a sense of expectation, hoping the media might bring them justice. If the interests of journalists cannot be protected, this will serve as a deterrent to reporting, and ultimately it is the people who will despair.
SW: You have said that “it is a tragedy to pursue journalists for the official crime of bribery.” Well then, how do you propose we deal with the temptations facing journalists? Some fear the alternative means indulging their crimes.
Zhou Ze: What we’ve seen recently is an abuse of power. It is essentially using the pretext of the anti-corruption crusade to go after reporters for bribery who have been carrying out watchdog journalism. I think this [anti-corruption campaign] has become a declaration of open season for retaliation against journalists on the part of official power. It has impeded watchdog journalism, and it has done serious harm to the public interest.
SW: Do you think we should simply look the other way when certain journalists are found to have accepted red-envelope payoffs after disasters at coal mines and that sort of thing?
Zhou Ze: I am adamantly opposed to leveling the charge of official crime of bribery against reporters, but I do not at all believe it is acceptable for journalists to accept payments. I think payments for positive coverage (有偿新闻) or payments for no coverage (有偿不闻), such as silence fees, are issues that fall into the category of professional misconduct. They should be dealt with through industry self-regulation (行业自律).
SW: What are the prevailing rules in this respect elsewhere in the world?
Zhou Ze: In other countries these are treated as issues of professional ethics. Actually, strict self-discipline within the media industry has been sufficient to ensure that such practices are kept in check. No journalists will treat their career prospects carelessly [by engaging in such behavior].
SW: There are some who point out that under current laws, doctors and teachers who accept payments can be charged with official bribery. Why should journalists be any different?
Zhou Ze: When doctors accept kickbacks, this generally involves the corruption of medical practice, of the use of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, through relationships with medical and pharmaceutical enterprises [and violating the rights of patients] . . . In purchasing textbooks, classroom materials and school uniforms, the behavior of teachers similarly has power attributes, so if teachers accept kickbacks, the nature of this is the same as for doctors.
But as for journalists, no one would ever claim their rights have been violated because a journalist reported someone else’s problems but not their own. The abuse of power and position does not apply to the work of journalists. The case is different for doctors and teachers.
[NOTE: My translation is admittedly quite garbled here. Zhou's logic might be best understood through the example of a mining disaster. Imagine that the person postulated by Zhou is the family member of a miner killed in an explosion, which perhaps local officials are trying to cover up. The journalist's original intention might be to report the story and thereby redress the grievances of the family member. Instead, the journalist accepts a hush fee, or fengkoufei (封口费), and does not report the story. Zhou Ze's logic is that the family member will not feel therefore that her rights have been violated by the journalist's behavior itself. Rather, the family member will place blame on the mine owners and/or local officials who suppressed the story by paying off journalists.]
SW: What do you think are the underlying reasons for the increase in cases of violence against journalists?
Zhou Ze: Our society has already fractured into various interest groups, and points of social conflict and tension emerge all the time. Journalists with a sense for watchdog journalism routinely appear now on the scene, exposing issues as a matter of course that threaten those who have behaved illegally, negligently, or who have violated the rights of others. In such cases of opposition and conflict, it is difficult to avoid the situation boiling over into violence against the reporter.
SW: The Guangdong bureau chief of Democracy and Law News, Jing Jianfeng (景剑峰), was found not guilty because “he is not a state functionary, so does not meet the qualification for the crime of bribery.” But the journalist Fu Hua (傅桦) was sentenced to three years for bribery. Why are we seeing different results for very similar cases?
Zhou Ze: While it is accurate to say that “journalists do not meet the qualification for the crime of bribery,” getting people to accept this is itself a process. Meanwhile, we see courts going after journalists for bribery, so there is a need to change the mindset of judicial organs.
SW: As prosecutions of journalists increase, what do you believe the effect will be?
Zhou Ze: The increase in prosecutions includes a number of clear cases where journalists are being targeted for carrying out investigative reporting. This could potentially have a chilling effect on the work of journalists as a whole, and ultimately harm the public interest.
SW: Do you believe the making of a [press] law is the only way to protect the rights of journalists?
Zhou Ze: As our country is presently without a press law, the creation of a press law is right now the first prerequisite in working toward the protection of journalists’ rights.
SW: What is the most obvious change you’ve seen in lawsuits against journalists in the last few years?
Zhou Ze: In cases against journalists and media in the past, the public was generally sympathetic and supported the media and journalists. Now, however, when journalists and media face lawsuits, it is hard to see the kind of public opinion support we saw in the past. This indicates that lapses in discipline among journalists and media in recent years has already done substantial damage to the reputation and image of the entire profession. The credibility of the media is now seriously tested.
[Posted by David Bandurski, January 20, 2010, 11:58am HK]