Chinese media responded today to moves by the Supreme People’s Court to limit media access to court information. The criticisms, which argued for a more robust role for the press in monitoring the courts, were reminiscent of media attacks against China’s draft emergency management law in June this year.
Two of the most outspoken responses came from Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily and Shanghai Securities News. Both articles said the rules, announced by top court officials on Tuesday, went too far, limiting the media’s ability to play a role in greater judicial transparency.
The Southern Metropolis Daily editorial suggested the new rules were designed to prevent “public opinion verdicts”, cases in which media coverage and Internet opinion purportedly influence judicial outcomes and negatively impact the independence of the courts [pdf_southern-metro-daily-lede-editorial.pdf]. But the paper stressed that the public’s right to know should not be violated on the pretext of preventing “public opinion verdicts” from occuring, and said the court should restrict access only when merited in specific cases. [A Washington Post story said the move was part of a crackdown on news media ahead of a leadership conference next year and designed to limit domestic coverage of sensitive corruption cases like that against former Beijing vice-mayor Liu Zhihua].
Selections from the Southern Metropolis Daily and Shanghai Securities News editorials follow:

Southern Metropolis Daily

September 14, 2006
HEADLINE: The Public’s Right to Know is a Valuable Basis for Favorable Interaction between Media and the Administration of Justice

In the last few days, a representative of the Supreme People’s Court made explicit its discipline rules on information release, and a number of measures have drawn attention. Among these are: the formal establishment of an information release system for the two levels of the court; for those cases that are major, particular, or which have national influence, the Supreme People’s Court will be responsible for the release [of information]; five categories of content, including “other information the leaders of the court determined could not be released”, must not be disseminated without exception; without the approval of judges and other personnel, no media interviews will be accepted.
While the Supreme People’s Court insists these measures are for the sake of the courts and society, they are without a doubt a tightening of controls on media speech (媒体舆论) …
… The right to know about judicature is an important part of the public’s right to know, and it behooves judicial bodies to thoroughly respect this … There’s no doubt that the role of spokespersons as gatekeepers of information for government offices far exceeds the role originally conceived, as communicators of government and public information …
This time the Supreme People’s Court has clearly prohibited the release of five types of information, including “other information the leaders of the court determined could not be released”, and this puts media supervision of the courts between a rock and a hard place. Actually, as of recent the right of our country’s media to cover the news (新闻采访权) has not been given a clear guarantee by law. In other words, the media, whose voice lacks protection, is clearly in a position of weakness relative to judicial bodies that serve as units of public power (公权部门). In such a situation, without persistent advances in openness of the judicial system, media supervision of the courts is a mere theoretical possibility …
This is an instance of the Supreme People’s Court wishing to resolve the problem of what have been called “public opinion verdicts” [media and Internet opinion mobilizing public outrage and influencing the outcome of court cases]. Media should unconditionally support the idea the courts not be intruded upon, that they reach decisions impartially, but as to these “public opinion verdicts”, we must be very clear about narrow-minded understandings that might exist on [this issue]. Only when there is a twisting of case facts [by the media], or the media seek to pressure the court’s decisions … does this constitute a “public opinion verdict” [NOTE: the implication seems to be that the court should intervene only on a case-to-case basis]. When media reports on the courts are impartial and objective, the right to interview and report must not be violated on the pretext of [stopping] “public opinion verdicts”. In a modern country, opinion freedom [NOTE: writer avoids saying “freedom of speech”] and impartial courts are two fundamental values, neither of which can be discarded. If opinion freedom is sacrificed in the name of “public opinion verdicts” then even the impartiality of the courts will be difficult to safeguard.

Shanghai Securities News
September 14, 2006
[Introduction to Supreme People’s Court measures]
… The writer believes these measures need to be discussed. Media access to court information is beneficial in promoting transparency of the courts, beneficial to supervision by the public, beneficial to getting rid of court manipulation and achieving an impartial justice system …
In March 1999 the Supreme People’s Court formally promulgated its “Regulations Concerning Strict Implementation of a Public Court Decision System”, which emphasized: with approval of the People’s Court, news reporters may make a record of, record, photograph, film and broadcast court proceedings live. This kind of specific regulation respected the news reporter’s right to interview (采访权) and protected the public’s right to know, because “media opinion supervision” (新闻舆论的监督) is actually supervision by the people, the people supervising the party and government through the vehicle of the press. But now the Supreme People’s Court dictates that “judges and other [court] personnel must not without exception make bold to accept interviews from reporters” — this is clearly disadvantageous to the interchange of information between the public and the courts, and could possibly put an end to what has been an improving relationship between the courts and the media …
… The public’s right to know arises to a decisive degree from reporting by the media. Only by obtaining their right to know can the people come to understand the activities of the government, the courts and other manifestations of public power, and offer suggestions and criticism to carry out a supervisory function. Lately the media’s right to interview has met with obstacles from local [governments] or [government] offices. If the courts again “draw boundaries” on news coverage, this might worsen the situation. Our country’s constitution stipulates that people have the right to criticize or offer opinions to any government office or government official. Any kind of rule placing curbs on this stands the risk of violating the constitution. Therefore, any “boundary drawing” on the right to interview is unfortunate, and I advise it be corrected quickly.

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 14, 2006, 3:45pm]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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