A scathing editorial in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily set the stage for a showdown over a clause in China’s proposed national emergency management law that would place heavy fines on media that “made bold” to report on natural disasters, public health incidents or industrial accidents in violation of administrative bans. Significantly, the editorial was written by Chang Ping (长平), the penname of Zhang Ping (张平), a former visiting scholar at Berkeley removed in a purge of top editors at Southern Weekend in 2001. In the interest of full disclosure, we should say that China Media Project co-director Qian Gang was also removed at that time [South China Morning Post report here].
The proposed national emergency law — which has the stated purpose of improving disaster responsiveness and ensuring administrative responsibility — was announced in an official Xinhua News Agency release yesterday and included a clause on reporting by news media. According to the clause “news media making bold to report on the handling of emergency situations in violation of regulations” or “issuing false reports” would be fined a minimum of 50,000 yuan (US$6,250) and a maximum of 100,000 yuan.
The reference to “regulations” apparently included not just national bans and orders but also statements issued by local or regional authorities. If the law were enacted with the clause this could mean, for example, that a national or city-level newspaper from Beijing dispatching reporters to the scene of a disaster in another region would be violating national law and incur heavy fines by reporting on the situation despite bans by local officials (who have an obvious interest in putting a lid on news coverage). This would indeed deal a heavy blow to cross-regional reporting, or yidi jiandu (异地监督), making it difficult for outside media to monitor local leaders. Cross-regional reporting has in the past been instrumental in breaking the silence on important national disaster stories as well as regional ones. The exposure of China’s HIV-Aids crisis, which devastated whole regions of the countryside in provinces like Henan, required persistent reporting by media from neighboring provinces. The first major report on the crisis, done by Henan reporter Zhang Jicheng in December 1999, eventually ran in a commercial newspaper in Sichuan province.
Zhang Ping makes the point more forcefully in today’s editorial:
In the instance of a coal-mining disaster, this might be characterized [under this law] as a small-scale incident that need only be handled by local authorities. According to this draft, the local government will implement unified leadership responsibilities, unified information and handling of the accident, and unified management of news media. What this essentially means is that the release of all information is in the hands of the local government. Based on documented cases of mining disaster cover-ups we know the local government takes the lead in orchestrating and leading the cover-up. Let’s say the media reports on the cover-up itself – is this not what you would call “making bold to report”? Yes, clearly. According to this draft resolution, the local governments and the instigators of the cover-up should take the lead in fining news media – is this not entirely nonsense?
So why can Southern Metropolis Daily speak out so vehemently against the media clause of the proposed legislation? This is also an important point. We should remember this is a draft law, which means at present that Chinese media have a modest amount of space to move on this important story. The editorial should be seen as an important work of advocacy, an attempt on the part of the journalism community (at least in southern China) to press for reconsideration of this potentially devastating clause.
The issue of its authorship aside, the editorial is also important because it comes from Southern Metropolis Daily, the newspaper disciplined in 2004 for its overly bold reporting on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in both 2003 and 2004 [SCMP coverage here].The 2003 debacle over the cover-up of SARS in China was thought by many to signal a new openness on the part of Chinese leaders concerning issues of public health, accidents and natural disasters. As the new leadership under President Hu Jintao removed the national health minister that spring, observers drew parallels with the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, which accelerated the process of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring) there [Council on Foreign Relations]. China’s leadership, however, has continually shown in its handling of such events that government control is the supreme condition of information release — “openness” means openness when leaders are ready.
As to the impact of the Zhang Ping editorial, we will have to wait and see how, and whether, other media follow suit on this issue. Meanwhile, here is a bit of additional material, the opening of Zhang Ping’s editorial in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily:
As we understand, the “Emergency Response Law” has been in development since May 2003, and was encouraged by poor communication of information and inadequate task coordination during the period of SARS. Two senior officials [at that time] were required to step down, thus making “openness of information” a term of much prominence among the public, which called for timely and transparent watchdog journalism [“supervision by public opinion”]. In subsequent disaster situations, such as coal-mining accidents, air traffic accidents and typhoon situations, mass media have functioned effectively to release information in a timely fashion, exposing acts of corruption [ie, cover-up] and preventing the spread of rumors. All people … affirm the importance of quick and accurate watchdog journalism in responding to disaster situations.
We believe, as a matter of course, that the spirit of watchdog journalism should be upheld in this law on emergency management. But in fact this draft in its present form does exactly the opposite and doubtless represents a step back. This is a puzzling turn of events.
English coverage of the proposed law, which is available on a number of government websites, is indicative of most coverage now available in Chinese by such newspapers as The Beijing News and Beijing Youth Daily [see PDF 2 above].
[Posted by David Bandurski and Brian Chan, June 26, 2006, 1:36pm]
[UPDATE: AFP released a version of this story at 2:40pm Hong Kong time. We would like to note, in case there is confusion, that The Beijing News is not technically “state media”, although Xinhua News Agency, the source of The Beijing News story, of course is. Note the oversimplification in the final paragraphs and the appeal to simplistic notions of press control in China. Nor does AFP mention that this is a “draft” law. In the friendly spirit of accuracy, we would point out that it is far more accurate to say “the Chinese government exercises persistent and rigorous controls over its news media as a matter of policy” than to say, as AFP does, that there is a “sustained media crackdown” in China.]