Since news over a year ago that China’s national ordinance on government information openness (政府信息公开条例) was in the works, CMP has focused attention on how such legislation might impact news media. In our view, the effectiveness of the ordinance, and the realization of the government’s commitment to transparency, depends in large part on the degree to which Chinese media are permitted to serve the public’s right to know (知情权) [CMP on yesterday’s release of the text of the openness legislation].

But today, as professor Zhou Hanhua (周汉华), who played a key role in the drafting of the ordinance, spoke with Chinese media, there were hints the effectiveness of the ordinance would be hampered by the same problem that has plagued openness legislation in China from the beginning — the role of journalism and the identity of the journalist.

Speaking with Beijing’s Morning Post, Zhou Hanhua, a professor of law with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), was asked how the new legislation would impact news reporting. Here is the exchange as it appeared at Sina.com:

Reporter: As a journalist, am I right to understand that once the ordinance goes into effect, as long as the content [I’m looking for] is to be released [under the provisions of the ordinance], government organs should not avoid my request for coverage (or “gathering of news”/采访)?

Zhou: I can only say that the media’s right to interview and the citizen’s right to know are different, and that media are not vested with special rights. The content stipulated in this ordinance focuses centrally on protecting the citizen’s right to know.

That is to say, if a government at whatever level understands information release as holding a single press conference then they are wrong. But in the ordinance as it was publicized, this point is not sufficiently clear, and that’s one regrettable aspect of the ordinance.

The ambiguity, which Zhou seems to find regrettable — the professor told CMP repeatedly in an interview last August that the ordinance would apply to “anyone” (任何人) — concerns the difference between “citizens” and “journalists”, between the citizen’s “right to know” and the journalist’s “right to gather news” (采访权). This lack of clarity, which speaks to the more fundamental issue of party press controls in China, has to recall for Chinese journalists the case of Liberation Daily reporter Ma Cheng, who tried suing Shanghai’s city planning authorities almost a year ago under Shanghai’s own information release statute after he was denied information, and whose career as a journalist was ended as a result [June 2006 coverage from CMP]. While many Chinese journalists and academics see news media as critical facilitators of the public’s right to know, media are still regarded in China as agents of the party’s will and as a means to control, or “guide”, public opinion.

Zhou’s response to the Morning Post reporter suggests the ordinance, when and if it takes effect in May 2008, will have little direct impact on the work of journalists in China. Even while the ordinance is historic in terms of the promises it makes to Chinese citizens, this gap in the legislation should also raise tough questions about its overall effectiveness.

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 25, 2007, 1:58pm]