A new local regulation combating official corruption and abuse of duty in Henan’s capital city of Zhengzhou makes specific mention of watchdog journalism, or “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督), as a key form of monitoring. An article in today’s official People’s Daily notes with a hint of praise that the legislation “especially singles news media out”, saying “news units should carry out supervisio n by public opinion on national government personnel” [NOTE: While the Chinese specifies “national” government personnel, this can be understood more generally as “government personnel”, applying to those officials within the jurisdiction of Zhengzhou].
Back on January 6, however, The Beijing News offered a moderate dissent in an editorial by a prominent legal scholar, saying the language “should” in the media-related portion was ill-chosen and that such legislation should emphasize the right rather than the duty of media to perform a watchdog role. The editorial also advised national leaders to take the lead in protecting the media’s right to conduct watchdog journalism, rather than surrender the issue to local governments. [David Bandurski speaks with National Public Radio about Chinese watchdog journalism].
The ordinance, which took effect on January 1, designates a range of areas — a “region of priority supervision” — for monitoring of government behavior by prosecutors and the press. These include, among others, official expenditures (treating of guests, etc), and the levying of educational fees.
People’s Daily today quoted an official in Zhengzhou’s local prosecutor’s office as saying “news media, as independent social mechanisms without complex links with those subject to supervision and capable of disseminating information in a fast, timely and broad manner, have advantages other prevention measures do not have … and are an efficient means of combating abuse of duty”.
In a page three legal column in the January 6 edition of The Beijing News, Peking University law professor Jiang Ming’an (姜明安) said the Zhengzhou ordinance should either specify that news units “can” carry out supervision by public opinion, or, alternatively, should state that “national government personnel should receive (接受) press supervision from news media”.
Professor Jiang’s argument follows:
“Should” implies a form of legal obligation, that if the subject of the law does not carry out this legal duty they will bear a legal responsibility. If this is the case, are we saying that when national government personnel are in violation of their [official] duties, media should all report on it, and that whatever newspapers and radio or TV stations do not will have to bear legal responsibility? Or, is the meaning of “should” not so broad, meaning that if a government employee acts in violation of their duties, only those media who know about it, or should know about it, should carry out news reporting, or otherwise bear legal responsibility? But if [the latter] is the case, who decides whether the relevant media “knew or should have known”? Clearly, supervision by public opinion should be a right of the news media and not a legal duty or obligation.
News media have a natural initiative in carrying out supervision by public opinion on government personnel violating their official duties, and they will often very much take the initiative in reporting the behavior of officials violating their duties or related incidents. Because if media lack this drive and initiative, they will lose their viewers, listeners and readers in a competitive marketplace, and quietly die out as a result. What this means is that local governments need only relax restrictions [on the media].
The problem is not that news media lack the initiative or drive to go out and conduct watchdog journalism on government personnel, but rather that some areas and some government offices place too many restrictions on media carrying out watchdog journalism. Just think, if we loosen these restrictions just a bit, and abolish a few (we cannot abolish them all, of course), will there still be so many officials daring to commit “corrupt act after corrupt act” without hesitation right under everyone’s noses? Would we still have all of these mining disasters, one after another?
Of course, for the law to permit watchdog journalism doesn’t necessarily mean that news media can carry out watchdog journalism without any restrictions whatsoever. The law needs also to monitor watchdog journalism and regulate it as necessary, otherwise media might use watchdog journalism for corrupt ends, such as news extortion. But limitations on the carrying out of watchdog journalism by news media are best established through the law, and not through ministries or local governments. Otherwise, the freedom of the media to conduct watchdog journalism will be fragmentary at best, or disappear altogether. Therefore, the author advises that the National People’s Congress make haste in promulgating a law relevant to this area.
[Posted by David Bandurski, January 10, 2007, 4:24pm]