More Chinese media voices on the question of information disclosure and the public good

Public disclosure of information has been a major topic of debate in the Chinese media this year. June brought controversy over China’s draft emergency law (we still haven’t heard the last word on this). In July came a row over disaster coverage, which focused on how to ensure release of reliable information about events like floods and typhoons. Most recently, China’s highest court announced new rules limiting media coverage of judicial proceedings, which some media have called backstepping on court transparency. Backgrounding it all, we have the proposed “Ordinance on Government Information Release” (政府信息公开条例) on the State Council’s legislative calendar this year, which Caijing magazine editor Hu Shuli has called “another new milestone” [SEE Hu Shuli, "The Imperative of Information Freedom", Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2006, p. 62-63].

In an editorial in Beijing Youth Daily on September 18, Ma Shaohua (马少华), a professor of journalism at Renmin University, wrote about the Chinese court’s announcement that it was building a press announcement system (新闻发布体制), which came alongside the new limitations on court coverage. He wrote: “At the core of the above prohibitions is the formation of the press announcement system. The press announcement system did not originate with the courts. Over the last two years it has been built up progressively by government at various levels. What is its basic goal? Is it to give the people a faster and more authoritative channel for information, or is it to limit, lessen and control information?”

Yesterday’s Southern Metropolis Daily featured a second editorial from Ma Shaohua, in which he attacked the court’s reasons for limiting media coverage. CMP wrote on September 14 that Chinese media were citing the problem of “public opinion verdicts” as the court’s reason for the new limitations. Some Western media have tacked the court rules onto the long list of recent disappointments on press freedom, suggesting all are part of a concerted crackdown ahead of the 2008 Olympics [See "Silent Games", Newsweek]. That conclusion is premature and probably too reductive.

In his Southern Metropolis Daily editorial, Ma Shaohua returned to the question of “public opinion verdicts”, or what he called “media verdicts” (媒体审判). He responded to suggestions by Chinese officials that China is not alone among modern nations in limiting court coverage: “The rather strict limits on media coverage of court trials in some countries is not primarily to limit [the media's] influence on judges of cultivated experience, but to prevent their influence on those ordinary people who comprise juries — because those standing in the important position of deciding innocence or guilt are ordinary people, and so may be influenced by the media. Our justice system does not have such juries”. Western judicial systems, said Ma, did not simply deal with media coverage by issuing bans. What was most important, he said, was balancing the various interests involved in a case (the public’s right to know, the right to personal privacy, etc.). This should not mean the outright denial of one of these (i.e., the public’s right to know).

All of these issues — from disaster coverage to judicial transparency — hinge on the relationship between the public welfare and the public’s right to know. The theme was raised again yesterday in yet another Southern Metropolis Daily editorial. This time the issue was public safety:

Southern Metropolis Daily
September 21, 2006

Two weeks ago a rumor circulated in Zhuhai and Zhongshan: a criminal was on the loose in Zhongshan who had repeatedly plundered homes and murdered people. The mood of terror spread. The emellishment of certain details pressed young girls to stay off the streets. The impact on citizens was enormous. Only on September 10, when Zhongshan Daily finally printed a wanted circular issued by the public security bureau, did the mood simmer down.

My first recollections of serial killers take place in northeast China . . . I remember fliers with black-and-white pictures posted on electric poles and shop doors. At the time there was no Internet and even telephones were scarce. Those fliers on the electric poles were talismans that meant criminals would find no place to hide. In the Internet age, Ma Jiajue (马加爵), who murdered four people, and drug kingpin Liu Zhaohua (刘招华) who had pursued by police for years, were captured shortly after their stories appeared on China Central Television. The sources coming forward were ordinary people. This tells us that only with disclosure of information can popular terror be avoided and the power the people contribute to breaking cases.

Zhongshan’s Public Security Bureau has always placed importance on information disclosure, and has regularly publicized public security information . . . in relevant media, which have reported and publicized [information]. In this case, appropriately timed public disclosure of information about a criminal suspect not only helped people understand the real situation and increase their knowledge of how to protect themselves, it also showed that political and public security organs have the ability to make people confident their safety is protected.

But we should notice that there is still a gap between the beginning of the investigation and disclosure of information. Of course, details that might help put people on guard and protect themselves, such as the suspect’s mode of operation and target profile, are still unclear during this time. But this has to do with China’s lack of a safety information disclosure system (危险信息公开的制度) or detailed rules on how to handle [such information]. Moreover, the readers reached by media publicizing such information are limited, and vast populations of migrants find it difficult to access such information. These are issues that the Public Security Bureau, the media and the people should consider more closely for dealing with dangerous incidents (危险事件). Southern Metropolis Weekly recently published “A Personal Safety Guide for the City”, which offered readers knowledge on how to manage the safety of their persons, family and property. Created with assistance from police, it included safety maps of a number of cities, including Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, revealing areas of high crime. This was an innovation in the publicizing of city safety information.

Government offices have said that provincial and local level cities are in the process of establishing a network of political and public security organs. As a member of the justice system, the writer earnestly hopes that related Websites can forge a way to a system of safety information disclosure, telling [people] how to prevent crime, teaching ordinary people how to protect themselves . . .making public those areas where crime is highest and providing information about modes of operation and target profiles, publicizing information about murder cases, and using example cases to educate the population. We deeply believe that only by uniting the people and the police [through information disclosure], by mobilizing citizen participation, can we protect persons and property and ensure the criminals have no place to hide.

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 22, 2006, 12:05pm]

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