Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

CHINA: Journalists Risk Their Lives to Expose Corruption

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, Sep 11 2010 (IPS) - Despite what are often overwhelming obstacles, a gutsy minority of investigative reporters in China continues to expose official corruption and criminal behaviour. But they do so at their own peril.

Both China’s constitution and the official National Human Rights Action Plan, which commits the one-party state to strengthening the “legitimate rights and interests” of journalists, guarantee freedom of the press, but the right to report freely is rarely granted in full. Reporters who anger or embarrass the government and well-connected private enterprises often lose their jobs or suffer a worse fate.

Because most media outlets in China are state-owned, investigative reporting of any kind is rare, and the government routinely forbids reporting on certain issues. Even before stories are submitted to officials for review, they are often self-censored from within the news organisation itself.

Government control over media was tightened in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the restrictions remain today, said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“The government is constantly looking for new ways to undermine the development of a truly free media in China,” Kine told IPS. “It’s an ongoing project and they’re good at it. The Chinese government’s bottom line is that their trying to maintain their 60-plus-year monopoly on power and they realise that media control is absolutely essential to that.”

But some reporters are willing to dig deep – with some success.


In July, for example, the Zhejiang province police service issued a warrant for Qiu Ziming, a reporter for the business weekly ‘Economic Observer’, on the behest of a powerful local company, which Qiu had exposed for insider trading. Qiu’s employers strongly voiced their support for Qiu’s reporting, and the warrant was withdrawn. Police later issued a rare public apology.

A growing number of citizen journalists are using blogs and other tools of the Internet to disseminate news before the information can be censored. And media outlets such as ‘Southern Weekend’, ‘Southern Metropolitan Daily’, and ‘Beijing News’ are given more latitude from the censors to report on sensitive issues.

“It’s one of the inspiring things about Chinese journalism, that there are people who, in spite of pervasive state censorship, in spite of the risk to their careers, to their salaries, to their ability to get new jobs … are willing to push the envelope, to get at stories that to a large extent the people with power would prefer them not to cover,” Kine said.

Still, the risks of challenging authority in China are great.

On Jul. 23, Gheyret Niyaz, a Uighur journalist and editor of the website ‘Uighurbiz’, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “endangering state security.” A year earlier, Niyaz angered the government by giving an interview to foreign media after the ethnic violence that erupted in Xinjiang province, home to several ethnic groups, including the Turkic-speaking Uighurs.

The same week as the Niyaz verdict, three other reporters from Xinjiang were convicted of the same charge and handed sentences ranging from three to 10 years.

In March, Zhang Hong, an editor at the ‘Economic Observer’, was fired days after co-writing an editorial calling for the abolishment of the ‘hukou’ (household registration) system. In June, Boa Yuehang, an editor at ‘China Economic Times’ daily, was dismissed after uncovering a scandal in northern Shanxi province that linked four child deaths and 17 illnesses to exposed vaccine stocks.

In the worst cases, journalists are met with violence for reporting sensitive subjects.

In July, an unidentified man repeatedly punched Chen Xiaoying, a reporter for ‘China Times’, in apparent retaliation against Chen’s reporting of alleged wrongdoing on the part of Shenzhen State Enterprise Co. In April, a group of 10 assailants dressed in camouflage outfits attacked Yang Jie, a reporter for Beijing News, as he snapped photos of a forced demolition site.

In June, Fang Xuanchang, the Chinese-language ‘Caijing’ business magazine’s prominent investigative science reporter, was hospitalised after an attack by thugs wielding steal bars. Fang recently exposed the presence of genetically modified cereals in China; challenged on television a scientist’s claim to be able to predict earthquakes; and exposed a doctor who claimed to have a cure for cancer.

Fang told ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine that his assailants were clearly trying to kill him. No arrests have been made.

It is not just the government that reporters are up against. According to an August report by Reporters Without Borders, an international non- governmental organisation devoted to press freedom, journalists are increasingly finding themselves targets of threat and censorship by both private and public sector companies.

In one case, two journalists were interrogated by police after writing about internal problems at Hanlin, a Shandong-based biotech company, for the website ‘Qianlong.com’. The article was taken down once the local propaganda department notified authorities in Beijing.

“It’s an increasingly alarming trend,” said Vincent Brossel, who is in charge of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific Desk. “In just a couple of weeks we’ve found beatings, attacks, cases of detention, and censorship of (sensitive issues).”

Brossel said the only way to resolve the problem is for local and national government to support media, not companies. “But what we’ve found in recent cases is that the companies have enough influence and money and power to get the support of the local police and government… The government should stand on the side of media freedom and the right to know.”

 
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