CMP reported late last week on an internal order at China Central Television for across-the-board termination of non-contract journalists. That order, which came on the heels of the recent “cardboard bun” affair at Beijing TV, is now being confirmed in reports from Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao (picked up in turn by Reuters).
So what do we make of this move by China’s state-controlled television network? [IMAGE: A digital video enthusiast, or “DV observer,” reports on the streets of Zhengzhou, screenshot of coverage].


Here we have a rather radical response to the Beijing TV scandal reflecting one side (the party propaganda side, if you will) of the debate within China over journalism and freedom of expression, insofar as the latter is guaranteed in Chapter II, Article 35 of China’s constitution. The debate centers on the question of WHO has the “right to report” (采访权) — the right, in other words, to follow up news, make inquiries, conduct interviews and transmit the resulting “speech” to an audience.
The flip side of this question, as we saw in the aftermath of the Lan Chengzhang case earlier this year, is about who exactly can be a “journalist.” It is a question of rights (权利) and identities (身份).
Is a “journalist”, in other words, defined by his or her place within the bureaucratic ranks of the Chinese press, as a bearer of a “press card” issued by the General Administration of Press and Publications? Or is a “journalist” defined instead by his or her professional role in exercising the public’s right to know (知情权).
Can an ordinary citizen be a journalist?
“Why not?” might be the simple answer to such a question in the West, where the speech of the press is categorically, and constitutionally, identical to that of citizens, where journalists are citizens without having a strange split identity.
The party’s assumption behind the jettisoning of CCTV journalists not under official hire — an arrangement used increasingly under media commercialization in the last decade — is that the ethical problems facing Chinese media are necessarily the product of a careless licensing system. As though, in other words, a journalist who completes his obligatory training in the “Marxist view of journalism” and gets his GAPP-issued press card is going to be more “responsible” than an experienced freelancer.
The role of the freelancer in China’s media is a complicated question for another article. For now, CMP refers readers to a story appearing in the July 30 edition of Henan Commercial Daily, three days after CCTV’s deadline for the removal of all non-contract staff. The story, which offers fascinating insight into the world of freelance TV reporters in China, is about “ordinary citizens” using digital video (DV) to capture news stories for a local Henan TV program called “DV Observer.”
The story quotes the producer of the program as saying they have “close to a thousand” digital video enthusiasts gathering news from around Henan, 100 in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou. Once referred to as “correspondents” by the station, these citizen reporters are now, probably due to the sensitivity of the former term, called “DV observers.”
Some of the more regular contributors have reportedly been issued “interview cards” (采访证) by the station, which are not to be confused with GAPP press cards but nevertheless give bearers some added legitimacy when on the beat. In a further sign of their importance to the local network, the Henan Commercial Daily article tells how the TV station’s legal advisor arrived on the scene to help one DV observer out of a jam with local police.
The Henan Commercial Daily feature also explores the issue of free speech and the right to interview, teasing out the tough question of identities.
The story quotes a Henan TV legal consultant as saying “the journalist’s right to interview [or “report”] and the citizen’s right to interview come from the same source, Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which says: ‘citizens have citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, [and] of the press …”
Interestingly, the article also quotes a TV producer invoking Hu Jintao’s “Three Closenesses” [see first underlined portion], suggesting the local government-controlled network views its use of citizen video as part of its drive to keep stride with state-encouraged media commercialization [for more on commercialization policy see David Bandurski and Qian Gang on PG 39 of Spring 2007 Global Journalist].
Another question raised by the article is whether DV reporters violate others’ right to privacy in the process of gathering stories. A partial translation of the Henan Commercial Daily story follows:
Citizens using digital video to film news are accused of privacy invasion
Henan Commercial Daily
The sadness of a suicide, the awkwardness of a drunken carouse, the anger and excitement of confrontation — when these aspects of human life are shoved into the lens of a digital video camera, they spark a controversy over the right to report (采访权) and the right to privacy (隐私权).
Two web users made posts in Dahe online forums lately venting their anger over and voicing their misgivings about digital video (DV) hobbyists going out on the streets to film and then taking their footage to television stations to be broadcast as news.
[Misgivings] DV of suicide jumper draws opposition on the Web
On July 22 a web user called Li-uhongmeizi posted a commnet on Dahe’s “Focus Discussion” forum taking issue with the airing on Henan TV’s “DV Observer” of video of a suicide jumper.
For such a video to be aired as news on television at a time when the family members of the victim faced extraordinary psychological distress, the web user wrote angrily, “this is a trampling on the personal privacy of others.”
At the same time, another web user said they felt it was a violation of privacy to film those on the scene who had not given their consent.
The postings from these two web users generated a debate about whether [these cases] constituted violations of privacy.
According to Cui Jianzhong (崔建中), producer of “DV Observer” on Henan TV’s public channel, the show was first broadcast on February 5, 2007, with a show time of 9:15 pm and length of 30 minutes. Owing to its lively footage and closeness to the lives of the people (贴近民生), the [“DV Observer”] show has already become one of the channel’s top brands.
The content aired on the show comes entirely from DV hobbyists around Henan.
“This program has an authentic flavor, and is basically about ordinary people filming the stories of the ordinary people. In the whole province there are probably close to a thousand DV hobbyists providing us with news. In Zhengzhou alone there are about 100,” Cui said.
[Current Situation] The identity of DV observers is an awkward question
Zhengzhou resident Wang Aiguo is a DV hobbyist who provides news to “DV Observer.” His business card identifies him with the title of “observer” for the “DV Observer” program.
Every day he takes to the streets with the DV camera he bought for 8,000 yuan and films all kinds of people. This has already become one of the principal joys of his life in retirement.
Concerning payment for filming, Wang Aiguo says: “The TV station gives a fee, but I’m not doing this for the money. I’ve got enough retirement to live on. This is my hobby. I find it interesting.”
The TV station does not pay a basic salary to its DV observers, but pays them according to each minute of broadcast footage, at a rate of about 100 yuan per minute.
Although they go out every day just like reporters and film news, and are similarly paid fees on the basis of what they get, these observers are not actually official or part-time employees for the TV stations. Before, the TV station called them “correspondents.” It now calls them “observers.”
But when they are carrying out interviews, these DV observers can only present themselves as DV enthusiasts, so their identities in the context of the interview are awkward.
Liu Zhiming (刘志明) is an observer who has already acquired his interview card (采访证). This card is useful in that he can rely on it when others ask to see his credentials. But it’s still not enough when he tries to reach government offices or businesses. He says: “As soon as people see that it’s an interview card they don’t want to accept [an interview] at all.”
According to Wang Aiguo, the TV station will issue interview cards to a number of core members who submit material with comparative regularity. This so-called interview card is not the standard press card issued by the General Administration of Press and Publications, but a document made by the TV station and rather more like a work permit.
[Debate] Do DV observers have the right to interview or not?
Owing to limitations of identity [in other words, not being an official journalist, having a GAPP-issued press card] the observers are often meet with opposition as they film, people cursing them, grabbing their lenses, taking their tapes, or even stealing their cameras.
One morning last winter, Wang Aiguo received a tip about a male body found in the jurisdiction of a certain police substation. But employees of the substation prevented him from entering the premises. An argument ensued, and police placed Wang in a vehicle, saying they were going to arrest him. Eventually, the legal consultant for “DV Observer” came and took care of the problem.
Wang Aiguo says there are a number of areas that are particularly difficult to film: one is traffic accidents, especially when they result from one-sided negligence and the side responsible doesn’t want to look bad and so avoids being filmed; then there are power outages at businesses and arguments between restaurant bosses and customers; third, there are government offices, which also spurn DV observers.
A lot of people say to them, “You’re not journalists, and so you have no right to come and report.” But when uncivilized things (不文明现象) and sudden-breaking events occur, who actually has the right to report (采访权)?
Yu Jianqiang, a PhD student and lecturer at Beijing Normal University, voices caution: “When media journalists report, they represent the public in carrying out their right to know news events. DV observers, though, are ordinary people (普通老百姓), and whether or not they have this right is something that needs to be explored. It’s tough to say.”
Chen Jieren (陈杰人), a well-known scholar and graduate of Tsinghua University who has principally researched constitutional law says that up to now there has been no law [in China] to specify that the right to interview is a special right exclusive to journalists. Every citizen has the right to record social phenomena. And particularly with the advent of the online blog and streaming video, perhaps anyone can play the role of a journalist.
On the question of where the journalist’s right to report [or “interview”] comes from, “DV Observer” legal consultant Zheng Xinzhi (郭新治), head of Henan Kaida Law Firm (河南开达律师事务所), says it comes from China’s constitution. He says the journalist’s right to interview [or “report”] and the citizen’s right to interview come from the same source, Article 35 [Chapter II] of the Chinese Constitution, which says: “citizens have citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press … [of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration].” According to his analysis, every citizen has an equal right to report”

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 1, 2007, 3:31pm]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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