By David Bandurski — This winter has brought another of China’s seasonal purges of fakery in its news media. The government is cracking down on “fake news reports,” and it plans to stamp out the problem of “fake journalists” by getting tougher about press accreditation.
But once again, all of these official measures overlook the fundamental issue driving media corruption in China.
In an environment where there are too few protections for conscientious journalists, and where the party’s chief prerogative remains the control of information, journalism is about monopoly and privilege rather than professional obligation — and that invites abuse, whether one has an official press card or not.
[ABOVE: Screenshot from Yinchuan Evening News of coverage of China’s new press cards in June 2009.]
Issued in October, China’s revised measures on accreditation for media personnel are essentially about making sure the legal right to gather information is granted only to those who can be trusted not to be naughty.
The idea seems to be that if the right people are granted “press cards” in the first place, and these cards are loaded with so many security features that they can’t be forged, then corrupt behavior will simply disappear.
While the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) will do the issuing, news outlets themselves bear responsibility for watching their staff carefully. They must “thoroughly examine the daily work of their news journalists and news bureaus, working to reform and correct behavior in violation of [government] regulations, and carrying out news gathering in accordance with the law.”
Mainstream coverage was quick to seize on a passage about journalists’ “right to legal news gathering” as the “bright point” of the revised regulations.
The official Xinhua News Agency spelled out the key differences from the 2005 regulation in a series of bullet points, putting the rights-related language at the top:
1. [The regulation] further refines the definition of the news journalist and content relating to the protection of [journalists’] rights. The regulation states that those carrying out news and editorial activities in the People’s Republic of China must possess a press card issued by the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP). The regulation makes clear that ‘news journalist’ refers to those editorial personnel holding press cards who are under official hire [or “establishment”/编制] by news organizations or otherwise formally employed by them, and who work in a professional editorial capacity. The regulation states that journalists who possess press cards and are carrying out news gathering in accordance with the law are protected by law. Local governments, functional departments and their employees must provide the necessary conveniences and protections for legal news gathering activities. The regulation also states that no organizations or individuals may obstruct or interfere in news organizations or the legal news gathering activities of news journalists.
That might sound encouraging. We can’t forget, however, that there are no additional protections whatsoever to ensure that officials respect these new guidelines. The language about journalist being “protected by the law” is a nice sentiment, but its utility stops there.
And there are, besides, several things about the new measures that are worrying and puzzling.
First and foremost, the scope of the “journalist” has been further limited and demarcated, to the point that the measures seem to criminalize citizen journalism.
Writing in the Oriental Morning Post on November 13, columnist He Sanwei (何三畏) said the regulations on press accreditation went even further in making press passes “badges of privilege” (特权证), the only legitimate and legal manifestation of the public’s “right to know” (知情权) or “right to gather information” (采访权).
As He Sanwei pointed out, according to this revised “Regulation on Journalist Accreditation Cards,” citizens who are not “journalists” in the sense that they do not possess valid press cards issued by GAPP do not have the right to gather news (采访权). A logical consequence, should the regulation be actively enforced, would be that individual citizens and research organizations that carry out investigative work would be, or could be, restricted in their activities.
This creates a strange symmetry of problems with China’s National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information (政府信息公开条例). It has been argued that that legislation, which allows “citizens” to request access to a whole range of government information, does not apply to journalists, who are performing a state function. The updated rules on journalist accreditation, however, give only licensed journalists the right to gather information.
So if citizens attempt to access government information through the former, aren’t they violating the latter? It would certainly seem so, particularly if they share that information through new media of some kind. He writes:
Consider the tension and confusion that will occur simply as a result of the “Ordinance on Openness of Government Information” which has already gone into effect and the backwardness of the “Regulation on Journalist Accreditation Cards.” Before, [at least in theory] citizens could formally request that their local government release information on revenues and expenditures, and government offices that didn’t wish to release them would have no way of refusing. But now things will be different. The latter can simply ask: “Do you have a press card?”
Almost immediately, of course, local governments across China pounced on the opportunity to garnish the national rules with their own local strictures — to show just how serious they are about implementing policies from the center.
Leaders in Sichuan repeated the call to strengthen regulation and control:
We must use effective means to strengthen regulation of the industry, raising the level of management work for press cards and news bureaus. First, we must improve the system of oversight of press cards and news bureaus, building a three-part regulatory system comprising management by news organizations, supervision by the public, and government administrative oversight. We must also improve mechanisms for the reporting of violations, setting up telephone hotlines. Second, we must strictly standardize the conduct of media personnel, building dynamic regulatory mechanisms and a database of personnel showing poor conduct, achieving a situation where legal conduct is the rule and violations are pursued.
As defining and dealing with “poor conduct” will remain the prerogative of the local governments journalists are supposed to monitor and report on, it’s very easy to see how empty the language about rights really is.
But further, the measures may actually contribute to the underlying causes of media corruption by tethering the “right to report” so tightly together with press accreditation. As He Sanwei writes:
The legal right to report (合法采访权) is in fact precisely the legal right to freedom of expression (合法言论权). Even while it is practically impossible, the “regulations” have coupled the right to report (采访权) with press accreditation, and this has turned the press card into a kind of scarce resource with monetary value, and a kind of “dangerous weapon” (带危险性的武器).
In other words, these measures may have paved the way for further abuse. Because when the “right to report” (采访权), or to gather news, is monopolized by the party, this leads to rent-seeking behavior. Journalists without scruples — and what good would scruples do them in the Wild West climate of Chinese politics? — will be able to cash in on their unique privileges.
The government maintains the illusion that this sort of behavior only happens among “fake journalists” who are unlicensed. But it has historically occurred quite routinely even among those GAPP-licensed reporters who have sat through grueling training sessions in the “Marxist View of Journalism.”
These doubts and concerns about how ineffectual strong words and “stricter” press accreditation are in addressing the real underlying problems have been replayed over and over again in China’s commentary pages.
In a column almost exactly one year ago in Beijing Evening News, a veteran “real” journalist quipped about his excitement over China’s new high-tech press cards, which were then still months away, then suggested these would probably do little to curb the practice of “fake journalism.”
A full translation follows:
Only timely release of information can deal with the problem of fake reporters at its roots
December 3, 2009
There has been a lot of news about journalists lately. The reporters who break the news have themselves become a story taking up news space at many newspapers. First there was the Shanxi “hush fee” case, in which it was found that a group of “journalists” bearing fake press cards, after which the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) cooperated closely with police to launch a fierce campaign again fake reporters. And then over the last few days we had this case of a real journalist from CCTV taken into custody, not by GAPP and the police, but rather by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and local prosecutors in Shanxi province.
We must curb the practice of abusing the mandate of supervision by public opinion (or “watchdog journalism”) to seek personal profit whether it arises from fake reporters or real ones. This is a matter of the breaking of given laws, and ultimately a decision [on each case] must be rendered by a judge.
But this fuss over fake reporters has reached the point where now hundreds of thousands of journalists across the country must change over to new press cards. Around February next year, my colleagues and I will bid farewell to our “2003 version” (03版) press cards, and change over to our “2008 version” passes.
I’m prone to getting excited any time I hear about something new on the way. And even though I’ve only had my original press card for five years, I’m really looking forward to my new one. Of course, I won’t incur the cost [of getting the new pass] myself. The cost of the millions it will take to change them out will be split among Chinese news media. I hear that the new passes have added security measures over the old ones like those used in Renminbi bills [to discourage counterfeiting] — watermarks, security strips, surface gravure printing technology. The inside pages even have English-language content, one page for each year. It goes without saying that local area [governments] across China will also have to be equipped with machines that resemble currency detection devices [that can nose out counterfeit press cards]. Fortunately, press cards are not Renminbi bills, to be replaced with new ones when fakes are discovered. Otherwise the people at Beijing Mint could never keep up, no matter how much overtime they put in.
We should also thank our lucky stars that journalists don’t have professional attire, like the uniforms worn by police and prosecutors. Because there are people who assume their identities too, dressing up and becoming fake police, fake prosecutors, fake judges. In our case the only thing that needs to be done is to round up the fake [passes] — there’s no need to force everyone in the country into a change of clothes.
Media and the capital reported recently on the break up by police of a fake press card racket. Eight people were charging between 5,000 and 15,000 yuan for fake press cards bearing the name “China Law Observer Online” (中国法制观察网站). They were setting up “news investigative divisions” and “internal reference divisions” all over the country, making money by intimidating companies and lower-level governments with what they claimed were “reports undertaken jointly with CCTV, People’s Daily and 16 other central-level media”
Interestingly, the head of the site was named Ge You (葛优), and I don’t know whether this man just happened to have the same name as Ge You the movie star, or whether this was a purposeful lie . . . Besides reporting on work-related and medical accidents, this group of people had the gall to issue “news investigation dossiers” to local police offices in Henan, Shaanxi, Yunnan and other areas [to extort money with the threat of exposure]. Isn’t this a bit like the rat licking the cat’s nose? Surely, they are asking for death. To be honest, as a real journalist these last 30 years, I’ve never dared mess with these state offices. But then we have this female reporter from CCTV stepping right up and causing trouble.
In setting up this website and selling fake press cards for which people were willing to pay between 5,000 and 15,000 yuan just to join the ranks of the fake press, the people running this racket were looking to use the threat of negative news exposure against government offices to unjustly cash in. At the same time we know that many local governments are willing to fork out “silence fees” (封口费) in order to [buy off journalists and] prevent exposure — and this clearly shows us that the wolves and weasels go after the sickest ducks. As the saying goes: Don’t sell out your conscience, and the ghosts won’t come knocking at your door at night. If you’re guilt-free, why are you handing out “silence fees”? What is it you have to fear? The enterprise of the fake journalist, in other words, is on a certain level just the black eating the black.
Right now, when lower-level governments or bureaus get themselves into a bind, they don’t come clean to the news media. Instead they “pay money to sweep it under the rug” (花钱遮丑), “fork out cash to buy peace” (花钱买平安), “open their checkbook to save their official heads” (花钱保乌纱帽). And this is exactly the kind of behavior that has created an opportunity for extortion by fake journalists. I am quite certain that if problems can be quickly opened up to news media, then the market for “silence fees” will dry up for fake journalists. Then, of course, fake press cards would become worthless.
Once the new “08” press card versions are out, will there still be people counterfeiting them? That’s hard to say. Will fake journalists become extinct? That’s even harder to say. If we do not eradicate the soil that nurtures the fake journalist, if we still fall back on “silence fees” as expedient solutions, then even if our press cards are [loaded with security measures] like our Renminbi currency, then it will be difficult to ensure that journalists don’t fake it.
[Posted by David Bandurski, December 9, 2009, 5:39pm HK]