As mainland Chinese media continue to throw their support behind two Chinese journalists facing a costly libel suit from a Taiwanese manufacturing company in a Shenzhen court [wrap-up of coverage at ESWN] [Summary of contrarian positions at Danwei.org], a term generally cold-shouldered in Chinese media, press freedom (新闻自由), is emerging discreetly in the debate.
While proxy terms like “freedom of expression” (言论自由) and “watchdog journalism” (舆论监督) appear more frequently in China’s officially controlled media, press freedom (lit. “news freedom”) remains politically sensitive and is typically reserved for pejorative uses, like “so-called press freedom” or “bourgeois press freedom”, or for references to media outside China (such as the current controversy over the Gillian Chung photos in Hong Kong, see ESWN).
In an online essay in 2004, Beijing University professor Jiao Guobiao blasted the Central Propaganda Department for clamping down on the use of the term [more at ESWN]: “Everyone knows that China’s doesn’t have too much press freedom, but rather too little press freedom. I ask, who is it that takes what pitifully little press freedom we have and gives it yet shorter weight? It is the Central Propaganda Department. Press freedom is a measure of a society’s degree of sophistication. Sages in the West have said, we can do without government, but we can not do without press freedom.
The Central Propaganda Department, which sees press freedom as its enemy, won’t even allow the words ‘press freedom’ to be used at will
. This is clearly a brazen trampling on the most basic principles of civilization.” [Chinese text available here]. Jiao was later removed from his university position for this criticism, which propaganda officials saw as a supreme act of brazenness.
News of the recent lawsuit against mainland journalists, brought by Foxconn against a reporter and editor at China Business News, was first spread through online forums on August 24 then taken national by The Beijing News on August 26.
The lawsuit alleges that a June 15 story written by Wang You (王佑), in which the reporter detailed a range of alleged labor violations by at a Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, was libelous. The suit also names China Business News editor Weng Bao (翁宝) as a defendant. Foxconn is demanding a public apology and seeking 10 million yuan in damages from Weng Bao and 20 million yuan from Wang You, and the court has reportedly complied with the company’s request that the assets of the defendants be frozen pending a decision.
The Beijing News yesterday said a petition was circulating on the Internet called “Opposing Foxconn’s Use of Corporate Resources to Attack Journalists and Intrude on Press Freedom”.
In a page four report on the case today, Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Guangdong Party Committee, quoted Yu Guoming, a well-known media expert from Renmin University, as saying that the case involved a company “using loopholes in our nation’s laws to limit press freedom”. Shanghai Securities Daily also paraphrased Yu Guoming as saying the case was a “violation of press freedom”.
A number of Chinese media referred to a December 2004 case in which the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) launched a petition supporting reporter Kuang Wen-chi, who was being sued by the chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry, the TSE-listed company that owns Foxconn. The 2004 petition urged international brands like Apple Computer against choosing manufacturing partners that “ignore human rights and impinge on press freedom” [English coverage here].
According to Article 35 of China’s constitution, citizens of the People’s Republic of China nominally “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press [出版自由/lit. “publishing freedom”], of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” But the term “press freedom”, regarded as part of “publishing freedom” [出版自由], continues to be politically charged.
Media censors in China — the very same ones Jiao Guobiao criticized — likely view use of the term as less objectionable in the Foxconn case because it involves a claim of rights against a private company from Taiwan rather than against the Communist Party or Chinese leadership.
[Posted by David Bandurski, August 30, 2006, 2:15pm]