China’s ‘Deviant’ Journalists Navigate Censorship, Corruption [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 11:  H...

Fear and intimidation are the preferred tools used by the Chinese government to control the country’s more outspoken media outlets. Investigative reporting the world over is inherently expensive and risky, but in China those risks ratchet up to include various forms of harassment, lawsuits, job loss, violence and even death threats. Perhaps worst of all, the most likely outcome for working under such punishing conditions is a story that either gets watered down or never gets published at all.

Call it watchdog journalism with Chinese characteristics, or more accurately “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督). The Chinese Communist Party recognized the role of the media in monitoring its misbehaving government officials way back in 1987, but it’s allowed to exist only under the strictest of controls.

“Ever since the Tiananmen incident, there has never been a formal opening of the media or relaxing of media controls. In fact, there’s been a progressive tightening in recent years,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project (CMP).

Bandurski and his colleague Martin Hala recently published a book titledInvestigative Journalism in China: Eight cases in Chinese watchdog journalism that offers an inside view of the complexities and intrigues of working in a Chinese newsroom.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the course of this book getting to know a lot of Chinese journalists, and they work in an incredibly difficult environment. They take calculated risks and push as far as they think they can go,” he said.

Successful strategies used by reporters in the past have often involved exploiting gaps between the Central Government and provincial authorities, along with gaps between the provinces themselves. Cho Li-Fung, a former reporter at 21st Century World Herald and currently a sociology teacher at Hong Kong University, described the three basic types:

– The geographic gap by which out-of-town reporters face fewer restrictions since they’re not under the same administrative controls by regional officials.

– The self-interest gap by which local officials turn a blind eye to reports of problems in other provinces by the media from their jurisdiction.

– The information gap by which local officials have a harder time tracking unfamiliar journalists, allowing them to have more time to publish stories before political pressure can be brought to bear.

Bandurksi singled out Hu Shuli, the former editor-in-chief of Caijingmagazine, as the master of this practice. Caijing’s reporting on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) illustrates how Guangdong’s authorities had banned all coverage by the local media, but there was no such directive from the Central Propaganda Department to curtail reporting by the national press. Hu said fear, or self-censorship, most likely stopped many of her peers from pursuing the story.

Six years later, Hu stepped down from her position at Caijing after a prolonged tussle with the magazine’s owners over finances and editorial independence. She now edits Caixin magazine.

Cheng Yizhong, the founder and former editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News said during a recent lecture, “Chinese journalists haven’t found the edge of the bird cage yet.” He believes professional journalists in China need to push themselves to find the real boundaries because the bigger problem in China is not the censors, but the prevalence of self-censorship.

Cheng was jailed for four months in 2004 in what has been viewed as retaliation for his coverage of a young migrant worker named Sun Zhigang who had been beaten to death while in police custody. Two of his colleagues also served prison terms for what appeared to be trumped-up charges of corruption. Cheng was awarded the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2005.

“The present generation of Chinese journalists grew up in a time when lies prevailed and media served the narrow interests of political leaders,” said Qian Gang, a former editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend and now the director of the China Media Project.

“While controls are real today, these journalists have a vested interest in pushing the limits of control in order to ensure China does not step backward,” he added.

The government’s control of the Chinese media relies on a system of intimidation for both reporters and editors, but it’s often the editors that are used as the main pressure point. All Chinese editors know full well that their livelihoods and careers are at stake every time they publish a story that casts government officials in an unfavorable light. Swift and harsh punishments, irrespective of a report’s accuracy, create an environment of fear and calculated risks. Editors and their paymasters have to be skilled at second-guessing the political ramifications of their coverage. When the risks become too great, a story can either be watered down or effectively killed off by filing it as one of the Party’s internal references.

Internal references are reports compiled for circulation among government officials only. They’re assigned different levels of classification, and unauthorized distribution can lead to accusations of revealing state secrets. Internal references are intended to inform the authorities of key information deemed too sensitive for public disclosure.

The cross-regional reporting that many publications had used so effectively in the past was officially banned by the Party years ago, and yet it still persists. Like many other laws in China, enforcement is sporadic, usually coinciding with disputes that involve prominent officials or businessmen.

“Everyone still does it, but it’s riskier now,” Bandurski said. “It’s really a matter of what political connections a publication’s editors and owners can muster against the person or organization that was the focus of the report. The media needs political connections just like commercial businesses. And that tells us why we can’t just look at the formal aspects of control. They don’t tell the whole story,” he added.

The first of the eight cases featured in the book illustrates this dynamic.Lu Yuegang’s pursuit to find justice for the victim of an unspeakable sulfuric acid attack was repeatedly stymied by the top party leader at Fenghuo village in Shaanxi province. Although Lu’s peers in the domestic and international press eventually publicized the story and lauded his efforts, his employer, China Youth Daily, was sued for libel and a provincial court ordered them to pay 900,000 yuan in damages and legal fees.

Lu’s experience also revealed the existence of the court’s “auxiliary files,” highly classified documents that show the details of contacts between Party officials and the court. The files are thought to reveal behind-the-scenes wrangling by government officials when political agendas trump the law. Lu had tried and failed to get access to the files related to his case. He described them as the “black box” of the Chinese legal system.

Bandurski says the Western stereotype of Chinese media as being mouthpieces of the party or watchdogs on a leash fails to account for the complexities and nuances of what’s actually happening. The irony is that the Western press relies so much on the investigative reporting done by the Chinese media to reveal scandals like the Henan Aids epidemic,Sichuan’s “tofu” buildingsmelamine-tainted dairy products and forced child labor at brick kilns in Shanxi and Henan.

On top of all the risks cited above, investigative reporting in China is further complicated by the poor ethics and lack of professionalism that continue to plague the industry. Corruption within the media, particularly by reporters threatening negative coverage unless a fee is paid, often referred as news extortion or black journalism, continues to be a serious problem. Forbes Beijing Bureau Chief Gady Epsteindescribes this practice in “Dark Journalism.”

In spite of this, many people have no other alternative than to seek assistance from the media for their grievances. Entrenched local officials can use the power of their office to cut off all avenues of appeal through government agencies and the law courts. Given these circumstances, reporters can be seen as miracle workers by some for calling attention to the injustices they’ve suffered, which explains why some reporters are still willing to endure such a difficult environment.

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One Comment to “China’s ‘Deviant’ Journalists Navigate Censorship, Corruption [News Report]”

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