This summer, with its damaging revelations of fake news, has been one of discontent for the Chinese media. First came the “cardboard bun affair.” Next came the apocryphal news story of the “worst stepmother in history,” exposed as a “well-intentioned” hoax about domestic abuse aimed at drumming up financial support for a young girl suffering from hemophilia. [IMAGE: Screenshot of online coverage of New Express report on Guilin unrest].
While media were the focus of criticism in these and other cases, all begged deeper questions about media control and government transparency in China.
Today, the debate over the media and its social and political role is complicated by another story – a public apology by the official Guilin Daily, no doubt under party pressure, for a story about an official clean up of the local tourism industry. The paper now says the news report was “improper at points,” “having a negative impact.” [More from ESWN].
But wait, does that suggest the story was in any way untrue?
The “negative impact” cited in the Guilin Daily apology – and a companion apology from the reporter responsible, Liu Guidan (刘桂丹) – probably refers to local unrest following the July 26 publication of the story, which reportedly drew waves of petitioners from the local tourism industry to the Guilin office of the party committee.
Were they angry about the story itself, or about the government clean up campaign and its possible impact on their livelihoods? Local officials have so far kept the public in the dark.
We have, in fact, what looks like a piece of government-sanctioned watchdog journalism, or “supervision by public opinion,” carried out by the local party newspaper. This sort of party watchdog journalism, which generally deals with lower-level corruption issues, has often been criticized with the phrase, “swatting at flies and letting the tigers run free” — that is, going after small fry, such as corrupt businesses, while rotten party leaders are untouched.
The problem in Guilin, possibly, is that local officials never guessed as they set out to clean up the tourism industry that the flies would bite back. In recent days, authorities in Guilin have worked to quell unrest among angry tourism workers in the region, which relies heavily on tourism.
The bizarre situation, as many other Chinese media have pointed out today, is that local party officials seem to be pushing responsibility for the fallout of an official clean up campaign onto the shoulders of the local party newspaper. In fact, the authorities have not yet stepped forward to explain how exactly the news report in question was “improper.” There are only, so far, the two apologies.
The news from Guilin brought a flood of criticism from web users and major newspapers today.
An editorial in today’s Information Times questioned the motives behind the apology from Guilin Daily, which implied government censure. “So is this report in Guilin Daily a ‘cardboard bun’ story? Or is the real source of the problem is not necessarily something “improper”, but rather that it “had a negative impact” [causing social unrest]?
As to the apparent outcry against the article from tourism workers in Guilin, the editorial stressed that it was the journalist’s job to report the facts, and that it was impossible to expect everyone to accept those facts in the growing diversity of Chinese society:
Journalists must speak the truth, because this is their professional duty. To speak the truth you must speak, and this means facing the inevitability of making mistakes. Today’s society is a pluralistic one, and everyone has his or her own standpoint, views, ways of thinking and rights to uphold.
At Southern Metropolis Daily, columnist Liu Hongbo sought clarification of what exactly had been “improper” about the original news story. “We only see those issuing apologies saying the ‘article was improper at points’. But we don’t see exactly how and where the article was improper,” he wrote.
There was nothing in the Guilin Daily article attacking the local tourism industry as a whole, Liu Hongbo said. He suggested the newspaper had in fact “impartially” reported that the city of Guilin had begun a clean up of the tourism industry. The article had offered examples of the types of behavior that would (purportedly) be the focus of the government campaign.
In echoes of the public response to the Beijing government’s recent handling of the “cardboard bun affair”, Liu closed by appealing for more transparency in the case: “Who can give the public a response? Is Guilin carrying out a clean up of the tourism industry or not? What exactly were tourism workers petitioning about? Was the newspaper report truthful or falsified? What does this phrase ‘improper’ point to?”
A column from China News & Publishing Daily also wanted to know exactly what was meant by “improper” in the Guilin Daily apology:
The report [by Guilin Daily] said that the city of Guilin was launching a special investigation of the tourism market focusing on travel agencies and tour guides — was this the improper portion? The report said that party secretary Gao Xiong (高雄) had issued a written statement on two letters he received from travelers, and demanded the Municipal Tourism Authority “clean up the tourism industry, exposing what needed to be exposed” — was this the improper portion?
We’re not clear about what these “improper points” are, and the content of the apologies is not specific. This causes us to doubt whether the apologies were actually caused by improper points in the news report.
A separate editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily suggested the local newspaper was being scapegoated (by industry workers and officials) for lapses in local government regulation:
The tour guides have pointed the blame in the wrong direction. It is not the media that has made it tough for them to make a living lately, but the current tourism regulatory mechanisms and oversight offices that have not done sufficient oversight. The only thing the media report did is to shrink the tourism workers’ leeway to earn unofficial income.
The editorial speculated that the official handling of the affair had placed narrow notions of social stability before a realistic consideration of the various rights and interests involved:
Judging from the news released by the Guilin government, and the public apology issued by Guilin Daily and the reporter, the authorities have acted unfairly toward the paper and the reporter under the principle that stability comes before all else … (稳定压倒一切). Perhaps the rights of tourism workers in Guilin have been protected, but for those in the weakest position in the whole industry and most deserving of a voice, the tourists themselves, their rights, which should also be protected, have been overlooked.
[Posted by David Bandurski, July 31, 2007, 3:02pm]