Cheng Yizhong, founder and former chief editor of Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News, gave a his first-ever public talk in Hong Kong on Thursday, January 20 at the University of Hong Kong, where he reflected on his career and issues of press freedom in China.
[Photo by Vincent Du]
“The cage [of press control] is actually much larger than we can see,” said Cheng, who argued that the greatest stumbling block for Chinese journalists is self-censorship rather than government censorship, even as he said controls have tightened in recent months. “Often [the real question for journalists] is not how to expand the space for reporting, but about how to use the space that is available to the greatest extent possible,” he said.
Cheng, now vice-president of the Modern Media Group and executive publisher of Asian Business Leaders, was jailed for five months in 2004 following Southern Metropolis Daily’s groundbreaking reporting on the case of Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old college graduate who died while in police custody after being detained for failing to carry proper identification. In 2005 Cheng was awarded the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2005 for his dedication to journalistic professionalism and the pursuit of press freedom.
In his talk at the University of Hong Kong, Cheng said that the minimum responsibility for Chinese journalists should be to do as much as possible within the official limits imposed by the government and Party propaganda officials. Beyond that, “we should try to enlarge the space within the cage, and to urge authorities to fulfill the commitment of freedom of speech,” he said.
Cheng said that Chinese journalists could still accomplish much more without violating China’s constitution — which, he stressed, formally guarantees freedom of expression — and its laws. Rather than waiting for the most ideal external conditions, journalists must use their professional strengths and ideals to promote freedom of expression. Many reporting restrictions in China are plainly unreasonable and even “absurd”, Cheng said, and he urged Chinese media to unite in breaking through them.
Chinese media have managed to break through restrictions for such major stories as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2010 Shanghai fire, both of which were initially subject to outright bans on coverage, said Cheng.” Facing big stories like this, the [propaganda department’s] first thought is not how to report them as well and thoroughly as possible but how to cover them up,” Cheng said. “I hope in the future our media will have the courage to say NO to these backwards and absurd news bans.”
As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued seven important calls for political reform within a single month last year, this major news story was reported by overseas media but appeared prominently in only two Chinese newspapers. This, Cheng suggested, reflected a deficit in “political conscience, professional ideals, and courage” on the part of Chinese journalists. “Who says political reform can’t be talked about? Do they dare say so publicly?” Cheng said.
One of the most serious outcomes of press control and insufficient monitoring of power in China is what Cheng described as a crisis of credibility. “Credibility is something there’s a serious shortage of in China, and it’s something of great value,” he said.
Cheng raised the recent Qian Yunhui incident, in which a 53-year-old village head in Zhejiang province with a long history of petitioning against alleged abuses by local authorities, died last month after being crushed by a truck. While local authorities continue to insist that Qian’s death was an “accident,” many Chinese refuse to accept the official explanation. Whatever the truth behind the Qian Yunhui incident, said Cheng, it underscores the extreme deficit of credibility facing government power in China.
“Nobody trusts the government no matter what it says and no matter how it says it. Why? It’s a tragedy for the credibility of the state machine,” Cheng said.
Cheng said that reporting the truth was the only real value underlying the media’s existence. “Truth is even more precious than gold for transforming a country with an imperfect legal system and a flawed political system,” he said. And given the extreme deficit in credibility, he said, truth is also a very viable business proposition for the media: “I’m confident that if you offer credibility, you will be profitable. If you respect this fact, you will make money [in this business].”
Concerning the current situation in China and the government’s efforts to suppress freedom of the press, Cheng said these make him “furious and fearful” just as they do others. “However, it’s a lot better than having a gun to my head. This is enough for me.” He said that ultimately the price he had paid for giving journalism his best effort was far lower than he had originally expected and prepared for.
[Photo by AJ Libunao]