When China’s new emergency response law was announced last week it was overshadowed in both the foreign and domestic press by the new anti-monopoly law [Daily Telegraph, AFP, AP]. The former law, modified amidst a wave of criticism of its first draft more than a year ago, was nevertheless – even if not headline news — a modest victory for more independent-minded elements in China’s media. Gone was the threat of penalties for media “making bold” to report in violation of local governments – which held the danger of prior censorship. In its stead was language about how media would be punished (after the fact) in cases where “fake information” (虚假信息) was disseminated, particularly where the social consequences were deemed severe (严重后果).
On the plane of language, this is progress. On the plane of practice, there are major lingering questions about 1) how authorities will apply their definition of “fake information,” and 2) how they will determine “severe consequences.”
There was only a whisper of celebration in the Chinese media, most of it from official sources. “It seems the positive role played by the media has been fully recognized judging from the formal version of the law as passed,” said one legal expert quoted anonymously by Xinhua News Agency in articles appearing in a handful of newspapers.
There was not even veiled criticism in the media of the final language, suggesting perhaps that media felt they would be pushing their luck to nitpick what had now become law.
As the emergency response law quietly took the stage, however, Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News reported on new local rules (责任状) with some of the vim and vigor that marked the original controversy over the draft emergency response law.
On August 30 provincial and city officials in Guangdong issued a so-called responsibility contract (责任) with the aim of dealing more effectively with fire-related emergencies (all-too-common in Guangdong’s crowded urban areas).
The contract specified, according to the Yangcheng Evening News, that local governments in Guangdong “organize objective and accurate reporting by media, correctly grasping public opinion guidance.”
This heavy-handed rendering of the government’s role in “guiding” the media prompted the Yangcheng Evening News to ask — in an argument familiar to anyone who followed the draft emergency law controversy — whether officials weren’t contravening their own stated objectives:

Don’t get me wrong, issuing timely notifications and official news releases on fire disasters is clearly a necessary part of information transparency, and this helps educate and warn the public … The problem in dealing with major fires is that some people have grown accustomed to seeing these as “negative.” Behind such accidents can linger information about misconduct, negligence, corruption, inadequate administration or protection of one’s own interests in violation of laws and regulations, some of it criminal. There are people who use various means to shield or cover up the truth in order to protect the interests and positions of various government officials. This has already become common practice. The policy has become: “Put off fires, put off crime, put off journalists.”

Aside from this, the so-called “organization” of media to carry out reports might make it more convenient for media to access information, but it might also made them more subject to the control and supervision of the organizer. This is like a number of local regulations we’ve seen specifying that journalists, when they go out to report, must “be accompanied” by personnel from the local propaganda office. This “accompanied reporting” has been euphemistically referred to as “assistance.” But there are times (as when major negative information is involved) when this stipulation amounts to censorship and control of the journalist’s reporting activities, so that it becomes difficult for the journalist to get at the truth.

[Posted by David Bandurski, 1:17pm, September 3, 2007]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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