Chinese media continue their attack on the media clause of the draft emergency management law

As Chinese leaders continue to debate the draft emergency management law, media in south China, which have traditionally earned a reputation for relative outspokenness, are leading the push against the media-related clause. Here is an editorial appearing in yesterday’s New Express, a commercial newspaper in Guangzhou published by Yangcheng Evening News. The editorial intelligently discusses the media portion of the draft law against the stated goals of the law itself.

The editorial also addresses what has traditionally been an ideological blind-spot in Chinese coverage of natural disasters as well as accidents – their relationship to human error, or failures of leadership. Once again we have a direct reference to [Chinese] “watchdog journalism”, or yulun jiandu, as a necessary factor in monitoring the handling of emergencies:

One portion of the draft emergency law has drawn a great deal of attention. According to that portion “news media making bold to report on the handling of emergency situations in violation of regulations or issuing false reports” may be fined between 50 thousand yuan and 100 thousand yuan by the local government with the responsibility for “coordinated leadership” (统一领导) .

Looking at the draft law, it seems that not only the State Council but also provincial, city or county governments may take on the role of “coordinated leadership”, with the power to employ any number of “compulsory measures” – this would include monopolizing information, and during this monopoly news media must not “make bold” to depart from the will of the government.

In the case of draft laws, specific regulations and their possible ramifications must be considered thoroughly, so that the objective of the law itself is not compromised by the language. The [media] clause [of the draft] at the very least ensures the harm done by information interference and the propagation of rumors does not exceed the harm of the [emergency situation itself] …

However, in the first place, it does not consider that there is not way of verifying that the information in the hands of the government is the truest and most accurate under this imperative of news “monopoly”. If government information is incomplete or inaccurate, this could potentially lead to incorrect decision-making by governments (including both central and regional) and ultimately impact the handling of the emergency situation.

Secondly, [the clause] does not take into consideration the possibility that there are “man-made calamities” amidst “natural disasters”. If an emergency incident touches on interests of the local government (provincial, city, county), well then, in such a situation the so-called “report to superiors” we can expect from the local government will be a non-report or a false report. Interference of this kind is not without precedent, a good example being “collusion between coalmines and officials” (官煤勾结). In such situations this clause of the draft law would actually become a tool for corrupt local officials who want to cover up their dirty deeds – a highly effective legal sanction for [these governments] to set their own ground rules and avoid watchdog journalism (“supervision by public opinion”).

[Editor's Note: We saw this sort of "interest" in operation with the recent Xining Coalmine Disaster in Shanxi Province. It took days for the story to appear in the provincial Party newspaper, Shanxi Daily. Why? We can speculate that scheduled leadership changeovers this year in this and other provinces made officials wary of bad press.]

Thirdly, [the draft law] has not clearly considered which theme of this [emergency law], the manifest or the latent one, has the most force [Editor's Note: In other words, the stated goals of the law or the letter of the law, including the media clause]. Whose regulations should the news media respect? If media conduct watchdog journalism in violation of the “regulations” of some local government and reveal the truth, thereby ensuring the emergency incident goes only so far and doesn’t become more explosive – should they or should they not be punished with “fines”? It’s plain to see that if this clause were to indeed to become law, it could conceivably be used, abused and twisted during emergency events, working against the original spirit of the law itself.

As to the relationship between the principals and stipulations of law, the former governs the latter. If the stipulations of law violate that law’s very principles, they must either be changed or removed. If the stipulations of the draft law do harm to the very objective of the law, then reason suggests it will stand in self-contradiction. This demands urgent consideration. We must consider the ramifications of this law once it is formalized, and we must deal with these issues as the law is being made.

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 28, 2006, 12:53pm]

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