“Clap your hands for your dream, cheer for our country’s dream. This is the dream of many journalists; this is their most simple ambition. If they believe in journalism, they believe even more in their hearts.” This abstract comes from the New Year message ‘The Chinese Dream, A Dream of Constitutionalism’, the first article published in 2013 by the newspaper Southern Weekly.
Guangdong province borders Hong Kong and Macao and it is the only region in Mainland China where programs from the Hong Kong-based Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) and Asia Television Limited (ATV) are broadcasted.
The series of events that occurred in the Guangdong media industry in 2013 are all linked together and people cannot help but extrapolate them. What happened to the freedom of the press front within the reform and opening movement? Similarly to the great ‘Chinese Dream’, the journalists’ dream might just be a dream. In order to realise the journalists’ dream, there must be some guarantee to this dream. This guarantee is the law.
The ‘Chen case’, the Guangdong media’s powerlessness, and the enhancement of state control
In early 2013, the widely known incident of the Southern Weekly’s New Year address revealed the growing power of state control in the media industry. However, Yan Lieshan, editor of the Southern Media Group, had previously stated that Southern Weekly was originally affiliated to the Guangdong Provincial Party Committee; it was the leading Party newspaper. The version secretly corrected by government officials has disappeared.
The CCTV approach to the ‘New Express incident’ made the Guangdong media industry and even the national media industry speechless. On October 23rd and 24th 2013 the New Express published the eye-catching front-page headlines “Please Release Him,” “Again, Please Release Him”. They were requesting the release of Chen Yongzhou who had been arrested by the Changsha Police (Hunan province) for publishing over ten articles criticising large state-owned construction equipment company Zoomlion, and reporting on its financial problems.
On the 26th, at the height of the New Express incident, CCTV suddenly broke out footage of Chen Yongzhou in custody admitting bribery. In the video Chen Yongzhou was saying that he had accepted bribes because he wished for “fame and fortune” and had published ready-made articles under his name. These articles were all about Zoomlion, the Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer, committing financial fraud.
When this video broke out it was relayed by mainstream media in Mainland China and abroad. Meanwhile, a day after CCTV released the video of Chen Yongzhou’s trial, New Express published an apology on their front page and issued a statement: “The Newspaper would like to apologise for not reviewing and checking the manuscripts seriously enough.” It made them appear as a child who had been caught in the wrong and cannot find his words to answer back.
As for the truth, it appears to get farther and farther from us. In the end is it that media do not want to tell the truth or is it that they would like to but “cannot answer back”? Where have the Guangdong media who “dared to express themselves and to expose wrongdoings” gone? The Southern Metropolis Daily, the Guangzhou Daily, the Information Times, the Yangcheng Evening News, Southern TV, and Guangdong TV have all without exception been defeated in their confrontations with the central governments, and they now all relay reports from CCTV and Xinhua News Agency.
“The truth about the Chen Yongzhou case is still unclear today,” said a reporter from the New Express when describing the ‘Chen case’. “If you listen to his colleagues, Chen was very conscientious in his work. I tend to believe the news agency’s position.” According to this reporter, after Chen Yongzhou’s case was exposed, New Express repeatedly looked for the person in charge of Chen Yongzhou and his location’s economic centre to verify whether he really had received bribes. In the end, after repeated investigation and inquiries they final answer was that he “had not received bribes.”
“New Express agency’s leaders are all young and aspiring people, they have promising careers in front of them. It would not have been worthwhile for them to lose these prospects for some money,” said a New Express reporter to China Current. “The state monitoring of the media is growing stricter; among our peers, everyone is very cautious in doing their job.”
Yan Lieshan said about the ‘Chen case’ that in this affair, Chen Yongzhou, the New Express leadership, CCTV, Zoomlion, and the Changsha police are all questionable. He further said, “it resembles the practices of the Cultural Revolution: human rights abuses and trampling of the rule of law.”
Besides, only two months before, on August 25th Liu Hu, another New Express reporter was detained on the suspicion of making up and spreading false rumours. The New Express headline incident was first relayed by China’s major media and netizens; it was then relayed by international media which caused heated debates among the media and people in general. The Associated Press reported on October 23rd: “this incident took place at a time when people are increasingly concerned about the central authorities’ dealing with the journalists and netizens.”
Before the ‘Chen Yongzhou incident’, the Chinese government had already carried out a ‘rectification of the Internet’ and had arrested many Weibo users spreading rumours online, while publishing related regulations to suppress the propagation of so-called ‘online rumours’. For instance, if a ‘rumour’ is forwarded over 500 times on Weibo, the original source can be detained.
More recently, the Chinese Central Propaganda Ministry issued new regulations: starting from 2014 Chinese journalists will have to pass a political examination in order to obtain their press card, and those already in possession of a press card will have to pass this examination as well to keep their press card. According to the latest training material, one very important point of this political examination is that journalists are “absolutely forbidden from publishing any article containing criticism against the Party line.” It is thus obvious that the government’s direct control over the media is growing stricter.
It appears that the several incidents that shook the media industry in 2013 cannot be separated from the government. Everything indicates that this year the government’s control and monitoring of the media and public speech are growing stronger, but do these practices have any legal base?
The Guangdong media follow the orders and lack legal standards
As for the case of Chen receiving bribes, no matter what the truth is in the end, it indirectly exposed the unwritten rules that regulate the Chinese media world. In Guangdong, just like in the rest of China, when a firm gives an interview, it would offer some ‘compensation’ to the journalists. This is an unwritten rule known by all in the media world. The Chen Yongzhou case made such practices public. Contrary to other countries where accepting any kind of bribery when carrying out an interview is forbidden, in China it has become the norm to offer ‘compensation’ to journalists. And many journalists do not consider such ‘compensation’ to be bribery. As for the definition of bribery in the media, how can we distinguish between ‘travel expenses’, ‘silence-buying fees’, and bribery? Should this be determined by journalistic ethics or by the law?
The American Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics clearly states: “Refuse gifts, favours, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organisations.” “No press association goes against these norms. If a reporter receives any form of favour they will be dismissed and no other news agency would employ them,” commented Professor Kim Johnson from the Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University International Journalism department. “Students of journalism in the United States, before they graduate and officially become journalists, they have to go through a course of journalistic ethics theories.”
Compared to the professional ethical standards of the American Society of Professional Journalists, China also has a corresponding ‘Chinese Journalists Code of Ethics’, but the difference is that China is lacking clear media legislation to regulate journalists abiding by this code of ethics.
In China there are five normative documents regarding law formulation in relation to the media. They are the Second Amendment to the People’s Republic of China Criminal Procedure Law, the Film Industry Promotion Law, the Copyright Law, the Resolution To Strengthen the Protection of Information Online, and the People’s Republic of China’s Constitution. These five laws seem to cover most forms of media; however, the existing legislation cannot catch up with our era of progress and of ever-changing and constantly evolving new forms of media. Concerning the new online media for instance, China currently only has a Post and Telecommunication Law and it has long had difficulties protecting the legitimate interests of each party in a fair and impartial manner.
The American Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics clearly says journalists are to “shun political involvement”. But, contrary to the American approach, the Chinese Central Propaganda Department has recently indicated during a meeting that “the methods and experience of the School of Journalism jointly built by Fudan University and the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee Propaganda Department, should be summarised and promoted in order to provide guidance to the dozen of provincial and municipal Party Committees and higher-education institutions who have signed joint-construction agreements, to promote and strengthen Marxist concepts on media and education, to create a new journalist training programme, to promote interaction between students and the professional world, between teaching and research, between theory and practice, so as to foster a pool of high-standard reserve talents for the Party’s journalistic undertakings.”
Nevertheless, the introduction and improvement of media-related laws can help to better regulate both reporters and the government’s actions. In other words, media laws provide the government with legal bases on which to rely on for their practices; they are not there to let the government ‘do what it wants’. Reporters are no longer without regulations to rely on, which in turn also protects the media’s legitimate rights. At the same time, the introduction and improvement of media-related laws also protects the democratic and informed interests of all citizens.
Kai Ouyang, a Guangzhou freelance writer, believes that establishing or improving media-related laws or news-related laws is an absolute necessity. “Improving news-related laws is essential. It has been over sixty years since the establishment of the People’s Republic and we are still lacking improved and specialised news-related laws.”
Guangdong media must draw lessons and experience from the Southern Weekly’s New Year article and the Chen Yongzhou cases, but the Chinese central and provincial media must also slowly wake up – better late than never. Cooperation between the government, society, and universities will be necessary to remedy the situation: the government can regulate journalists through the introduction of relevant laws; society is responsible for overseeing the media; and universities can strengthen journalistic moral education for students majoring in Journalism. Chinese media should thus continue their introspection and preserve their moral integrity, thereby maintaining journalistic authority, fairness, and objectivity.
In this controversial situation, Guangdong media are bound to first learn how to survive under such circumstances, how not to repeat the Southern Weekly’s New Year article, the Hu Liu or the Chen Yongzhou cases, how to reasonably and effectively enhance the media’s credibility and market shares. Guangdong and even central media urgently need to solve these issues.
This piece was originally written in Chinese, and published on China Current’s Chinese Edition.
Yu Zizheng for China Current – East China Correspondents Centreby