Fujian’s top official spars with Xinhua News Agency over Typhoon Saomei coverage

More than two weeks ago, the China Media Project reported that in the aftermath of Typhoon Saomei Chinese media continued to debate the role of journalists in the handling of emergency events. That debate, which in this case centers on national versus local party media, has not relented, as China’s official Xinhua News Agency spars with Fujian’s top official, Lu Zhangong.

A wire report from Agence France Presse yesterday mostly missed the point, failing to offer the proper context and erroneously pitting Lu Zhangong’s words against a newspaper, Haixia Metropolitan Daily, that has in fact been one of his greatest advocates in the debate — and which he controls. Here is what happened, as summarized by Hong Kong’s Ming Pao on September 1:

While the powerful typhoon Saomei, which struck Zhejiang and Fujian last July, has already dissipated, the war of words between Fujian Party Secretary Lu Zhangong and Xinhua News Agency continues, again raising doubts among Internet users as to the publicized number of dead as a result of Saomei . . .

As Saomai slammed Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, the Zhejiang bureau chief of Xinhua News Agency took his team to the disaster area to cover the story. At that time Fujian’s Fuding City had reported just over 30 deaths to their superiors, but after Xinhua reporters visited the area the number of dead rose to 216. Fujian Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Fujian Party Committee [the province's top leaders], said in a report on August 19 that Lu Zhangong, on an inspection tour of Fuding, had said: “Some media, including reporters from outside the province, wrote many false reports based on hearsay, and the news was stirred up on the web. I worry about whether the cadres of Ningde will make it through faced with social pressures like this, whether they can continue without interference and do what we need to do in serving the people . . .” Using this quote, one Website [in support of Lu Zhangong] published a piece called, “The Saomei Disaster: Tormenting the Media’s Conscience”. It pointed its lance directly at Xinhua News Agency.

On August 26, Xinhua News Agency’s Zhejiang bureau released an article, “For the Conscience of News Workers — A Front-line Account of Saomei Reports”. It recounted their experiences on leaving the Shacheng area of Fuding on August 13: “Our media vehicle was just about to set off when 40 or more people rushed around us, and we heard again their painful pleas, ‘You must tell the truth!” The implication was that the local people of Fujian did not trust the reports made by their government and wished for Xinhua News Agency to reveal the truth.

After this exchange, the volleys continued. On August 29, Haixia Metropolitan Daily issued a report defending the handling of Saomei by officials in Fujian. The article listed off the various inspection visits and other shows of action made by the likes of Lu Zhangong and governor Huang Xiaojing. Xinhua News Agency responded by gathering together reports by other Chinese media on Saomei and setting up a special online page devoted to the story.

Lu Zhangong’s next salvo came once again in Haixia Metropolitan Daily, in an editorial called “Supervision by Public Opinion ['watchdog journalism'] Must Also Be Supervised” (August 30). The editorial was chock full of official media control buzzwords:

Correct guidance of public opinion (舆论导向正确) is for the good of the Party and the people; Incorrect guidance of public opinion is a calamity for the Party and for the people”. News media are the mouthpieces of the Party and people, charged with the important duty of leading society, influencing opinion (影响舆论), carrying forward a healthy atmosphere (正气) and creating cohesion. By upholding the basic principles of truth, comprehensiveness, objectivity and impartiality, and with positive publicity as the pillar (正面宣传为主), it must also strengthen supervision by public opinion (舆论监督), singing the dominant strain [唱响主旋律/i.e., "walk the party line"]. We see that the vast majority of news media take the high ground of responsibility to the Party, the people and history, cleaving to the ‘Three Closenesses’ and serving well as the ears and mouths of the Party and people, so that they have widespread trust among the masses. But we also see that some media reporters form subjective judgements, show favoritism or are swayed by their emotions in firing off their so-called “authoritative” reports.

And if there was any doubt about how Fujian officials felt about what role press supervision should have:

Whether or not supervision by public opinion ["watchdog journalism"] is correct or not is fundamentally decided by whether it benefits the path, direction and implementation of the policy decisions of the Party, benefits the solving of problems, benefits social stability, benefits the work of the Party and government, benefits the strengthening of the people’s trust in the Party and government.

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 5, 2006, 1:07pm]

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