In a case touching on the question of journalist identity in China and recalling the recent Lan Chengzhang story, a local Zhejiang court overturned a prior verdict in the “news extortion” case of Meng Huaihu (孟怀虎), former Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times, who was accused of extorting money from companies using the threat of negative news reports. The intermediate court in Hangzhou ruled yesterday that the right to watchdog journalism is a “public right” (公共权利) — that journalists doing monitoring, in other words, are performing a public duty — and that Meng is therefore guilty of the common executive offense of bribery, a far more serious crime than extortion. Meng’s jail term has been extended to 12 years from the previous seven-year sentence. [BELOW: Screenshot from QQ.com showing Meng Huaihu appearing before the court in Hangzhou].
While China does not work on a system of legal precedent, the Zhejiang court’s decision could be read as a blow to proponents of a more independent monitoring role for the press in China, for whom the term Chinese term for watchdog journalism, or “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督), is a stand-in for the more taboo term “press freedom” (新闻自由).
Meng Huaihu had countered prosecutors back in February by arguing that China’s laws concerning media were imperfect on the question of whether he should be tried as an ordinary citizen or as a public servant, and he should not be asked as a result to bear such a heavy responsibility.
China Commercial Times is a Beijing-based business paper published by the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC).
Meng was quietly removed from his position in 2005 after allegedly trying to force an advertising contract from China Petroleum and Chemical Company (Sinopec) by threatening to write a negative news report. China issued a ban on news coverage of the affair, and for months the only trace remaining of the China Commercial Times incident was a report from September 2005 in which ACFIC’s chairman called the incident “a painful lesson” and vowed the paper would clean up its act by “grasping the lessons of the Marxist View of Journalism, [former President Jiang Zemin’s] Three Represents and the Three Lessons [training program for media personnel, which emphasizes upholding the Party’s principles in news work].”
In May 2006, Meng Huaihu suddenly surfaced again in an official Xinhua news bulletin detailing acts of news extortion (新闻敲诈) allegedly carried out by journalists from the provincial bureaus of four Beijing-based newspapers, including China Commercial Times. The bulletin was a stern warning to newspapers in China to clean up their regional news bureaus [Coverage from CMP]. [Coverage from ESWN].[Coverage from South China Morning Post].
“Prosecutors in Zhejiang news extortion case argue former bureau chief’s actions amount to official bribery“, China Media Project, February 28, 2007
[Posted by David Bandurski, April 20, 2007, 5:20pm]