So far this month, “watchdog journalism”, or “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督), is one of the buzzwords to keep an eye on in China. A recent surge in watchdog journalism-related news has ushered the term into the headlines and given media an opportunity to reflect on their relationship to the party and their role in Chinese society. The latest news story to spark debate is a local Hunan government’s announcement of a new “watchdog journalism prize”, which has many commentators crying foul.
The term “supervision by public opinion” is often used by Communist Party leaders in China to denote media monitoring to fight corruption lower down on the official foodchain. The term was first mentioned by top officials as a form of power monitoring in the late 1980s, subject to control by its more muscular twin, “guidance of public opinion”. But for many journalists and experts hoping for a more independent role for journalism, “supervision by public opinion” stands in as the Chinese cognate of Western “watchdog journalism”, a proxy term for greater press freedom.
The first news story to launch watchdog journalism into the headlines this month came as new local rules on fighting corruption took effect in Henan’s capital city of Zhengzhou. The rules, announced back in November, make specific mention of “supervision by public opinion” as a key form of power monitoring. But some experts have argued that the rules, which push media with government mandates rather than empowering them with legal protections, simply highlight the need for better protections for independent journalism. The next story came as top Chinese law-enforcement officials, meeting in Beijing, gave a quiet thumbs up in their official bulletin to “watchdog journalism” as a means of combating corruption, a story some media pounced on with great appetite.
When news came last Friday of a new “watchdog journalism prize” given by top leaders in Chenzhou, a city in Hunan province that was the source of much negative news in 2006 (including a cover up of the local death toll resulting from floods brought on by Typhoon Bilis), many journalists eyed the announcement with suspicion. The announcement of the Chenzhou prize said specifically that awards would be given to “central and provincial-level media” whose reports promoted progress in the city, which had other media asking: what about local media in Chenzhou?
Now, even the official Xinhua News Agency has made its feelings about the prize known. In a news commentary (时评) that ran yesterday in Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, Chongqing Morning Post and other papers, Xinhua wrote that “awarding watchdog journalism always sounds a bit unnatural” because:
In an open society a healthy media will have a “natural impulse” toward watchdog journalism, what some have called the “journalist’s sense of [professional] honor”. Therefore, for media, creating an atmosphere “suited” to watchdog journalism is far more important than “awarding” watchdog journalism. What a healthy media cares about is whether or not its own rights are practicable. To have journalists thinking all day about how to take watchdog journalism sources and turn them ‘to their advantage’ [thinking about awards, or money, or things other than their professional duty], can, if not done right, lead to ‘professional news extortionists’.
The commentary, “Watchdog Journalism Needs Rights, Not Prizes”, said the real need was for a working system that protected journalists and their right to conduct watchdog journalism: “Building a system protecting the regular workings of the media is much more effective than the support of any one person or any ‘policy of favoring media’ (惠媒政策). Naturally, this is a major project and not something any one local area can ‘get right'”.
An editorial in yesterday’s The Beijing News said the awarding of “watchdog journalism prizes” in such a way as to confuse the relationship between media and those being monitored in fact constituted a kind of “soft resistance” to watchdog journalism: “As the subject of monitoring, the government should not express gratitude to those monitoring it by awarding prizes, but rather by creating an environment ‘suited’ to watchdog journalism”, the newspaper said.
A page two editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily said the Chenzhou prize — the local government’s “shift from resisting watchdog journalism to rewarding it” — revealed the lack of real acceptance of watchdog journalism by government officials. “What is most regrettable,” the paper wrote, “is that up to today there is still no definite legal relationship between the media and the monitoring of public power, and the right to conduct watchdog journalism has not been afforded adequate protection. When officials are happy, they can give out watchdog journalism prizes, when they are unhappy they can keep [news] from seeing the light of day”.
Chinese media have also made repeated references (as did the recent Xinhua news commentary on the Chenzhou prize, and Southern Metropolis Daily earlier this month) to the State Council’s much-touted policy of a “constructive and cooperative partnership” with foreign news media in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
News of the beating of one Nanfang Daily reporter in Guangdong [ESWN coverage here], and the beating death of a reporter (officials say “fake” reporter) in Shanxi, should keep the question of journalists’ rights firmly in the sights of Chinese media this week.
[Posted by David Bandurski, January 16, 2006, 2:15pm]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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