Chinese media criticize words of top Guangzhou law-enforcement official: Southern Metropolis Daily keeps quiet

Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily was silent today on Guangzhou’s top law-enforcement official, Zhang Guifang (张桂芳), the day after its simple news report on the official’s unpopular suggestion that media were the cause of worsening public safety in the city drew sharp criticism from Chinese Internet users. Other media from across China expressed disapproval of Zhang Guifang’s comments.

Zhang, secretary of Guangzhou’s Politics and Law Committee, said on Tuesday that while “the media and information industry in Guangzhou has played a major role in economic development, it has rapidly worsened some public safety issues”. Southern Metropolis Daily included the comments in a news story that ran yesterday on the popular Beijing-based Web portal Sina.com and drew biting comments from readers. CMP has now learned that postings for the Zhang Guifang story were being deleted by the thousands throughout the day yesterday.

Given Southern Metropolis Daily‘s characteristic outspokenness, it is unusual for the newspaper to stay mum on what is clearly a popular news topic today. While Zhang Guifang is a high-level official in Guangzhou, the newspaper, as a spinoff of Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, is controlled by top party officials in the province, and enjoys their protection. So what is going on here? The likely explanation is that, seeing how much noise the Zhang Guifang story was getting yesterday, top editors at Southern Metropolis Daily decided to lay low and let the storm blow over. As CMP noted yesterday, the politics between Zhang Guifang and top provincial leaders, particularly Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang, are reportedly somewhat disharmonious. Top leaders in Guangdong are likely to find the press generated by Zhang Guifang’s comments highly embarrassing.

Newspapers outside the bureaucratic bickering of Guangdong did seize on Zhang Guifang’s comments today. Beijing Youth Daily, a newspaper run by the Beijing chapter of the Chinese Communist Youth League, ran a commentary by a member of the Chinese military named Guo Songmin (郭松民) — further attesting to the growing diversity of editorial opinion in the Chinese press — that expressed some sympathy with Zhang’s views, but felt nevertheless that they were misguided:

I understand Secretary Zhang’s speech and that he was not actually arguing that the media had worsened the public safety situation (for example, increases in the actual crime rate), but rather that the media had affected the perception of city residents and outsiders of the safety situation in Guangzhou. If this was his purpose, I believe there was actually no need for Secretary Zhang to blame the media. Media reports are secondary. If there are bubbles and those bubbles are broken, there is still water and not merely air. Media reports might affect the perception of the safety situation in Guangzhou among residents and outsiders, but objectively speaking they are advantageous to the improvement of public safety in Guangzhou.

More, said the writer, should be done to ensure media could cooperate fully in the task of improving public safety:

Summing up, no matter how you look at it, media are all constructive forces in pushing for the improvement of public safety. Officials responsible for coordinating and managing public safety should think more about how to work together with the media, how to help the media in mobilizing public participation and improving the relevant mechanisms. The media should not be regarded as inhibiting forces to be pushed off into the margins. Here we have, in fact, the proper attitude toward the media and its relationship to the handling of public safety.

An editorial in today’s Shanghai Securities News related Zhang Guifang’s comments to the issue of “watchdog journalism”, which has been much discussed in the Chinese media of late. It added to the mix a number of recent media-related news stories, including the beating death of Lan Chengzhang and recent comments from the director of Guangzhou’s Agricultural Standards and Inspection Center, Peng Zongzhi (彭聪直), who said concerns about food safety were the “media’s error”:
  
If ones says these denials of the utility of watchdog journalism are merely verbal statements, well then, there is the issue of a number of areas passing specific measures that seek to restrict watchdog journalism. For example, at the end of last year, Anhui Province’s Congyang County (枞阳县) “raised” an “opinion” concerning the correct treatment of the work of watchdog journalism — they say that when central or provincial media conduct reporting on serious problems, reporting with rather large implications, those in charge of the offices concerned must receive [these journalists] in person, accompanying them for the whole process. If there are leaders “accompanying them for the whole process”, who will dare speak a word of truth to the reporters? Watchdog journalism becomes meaningless … Even more terrifying is the beating death on January 9 of journalist Lan Chengzhang, in which China Trade News has confirmed Lan is a reporter hired by their paper and sought to defend his rights.

The editorial concludes:

Watchdog journalism is essentially the people exercising through the media their right to monitor public affairs and the affairs of the state. It is an important channel through which to preserve the fundamental interests of the people. Any attempt to inhibit watchdog journalism goes against the central spirit of the people’s interests, and the trends in a number of areas to fend off watchdog journalism are warning sirens. We must fight against the spread of this trend.

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 18, 2007, 11:30am]

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