Linfen “gag fees” spark media ethics debate in China

By Emma Lupano — As scandal continues to plague the food products industry in China, attention is turning again to endemic contamination in yet another Chinese industry — the media. On October 26, China Youth Daily published a report about journalists lining up at the scene of a mining accident to accept cash payments, or “gag fees” (封口费), in exchange for keeping quiet. Since then, newspapers across China have followed up on the story and launched a nationwide discussion about what responsibilities journalists have, and why poor ethics continues to hound the profession.

At the center of this discussion are the questions: what makes a “real reporter,” and what makes a “fake reporter”?

These questions have been asked many times before in China.

In January 2007, the case of journalist Lan Chenzhang (兰成长) became international news. The reporter was beaten to death by company thugs as he tried to uncover a story about illegal mining operations. But local authorities in Shanxi claimed that Lan had been a “fake reporter” merely trying to extort cash from mine bosses.

A lengthy investigative report by CMP fellow Wang Keqin eventually confirmed that Lan had been carrying out “news extortion” (新闻敲诈), but Wang presented a much more nuanced view of how problems in Chinese journalism stem not just from unscrupulous individuals, but rather from corrupt media culture and policy.

Wang particularly took issue with the suggestion by many party officials that separating the “real” journalists from the “fake” journalists was a matter of who had official press credentials and who did not. [Visit this link for CMP’s full discussion of press credentials and “fake reporters.”]

This problematic standard for “fake” and “real” journalists recalls the so-called “Gold Nugget Case” of July 2002, when China Youth Daily reporter and CMP fellow Liu Chang found that eleven reporters, including four from the official Xinhua News Agency, had accepted gag fees (including cash and gold nuggets) to cover up news about an explosion in which 37 workers died.

The discussion of “fake” and “real” reporters re-emerged in April 2007 following the story of Meng Huaihu, former Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times, who was accused of extorting money from companies using the threat of negative news reports.

The case sparking coverage and commentary this week surrounds a mining accident in Shanxi’s Linfen City (山西临汾市) in which one worker was killed.

According to reports by China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by China’s Communist Youth League, a pit accident occurred at the Linfen mine on September 21, resulting in the death of a 41 year-old worker. Rather than report the accident to higher authorities, the mine decided to cover it up, and distributed gag fees to journalists who came ostensibly to report the story.

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[ABOVE: Page 7 China Youth Daily report on October 27, 2008, breaks the story of a mine accident cover-up in Linfen, Shanxi.]

Authorities now say they are investigating the case and that the owner of the mine has been fined 8,000 yuan.

The Zhongnanhai blog has translations of two original China Youth Daily reports here, but a CMP translation of a portion of the first article follows:

In the late evening of September 25, Dai Xiaojun (戴骁军), who writes under the web alias “Tian Ma Xing Kong” (天马行空) drove to the Huobao Ganhe Coal Mine with a colleague with the web alias “Live from Shanxi” (直播山西). The scene they saw on arrival caused Dai Xiaojun, a media professional with more than 20 years of experience, to gasp in amazement. Crowds of journalists were sitting down and chatting in more than ten rooms, and the hallway was jam-packed with more people who were queuing up.

Observing the scene, Dai Xiaojun noticed that two separate registration procedures had been set up downstairs, and in another office on the third floor people surrounded yet another registration desk. After that, bearing slips of paper, people were heading off to another office to close the deal. The visitors [Dai and his colleague] completed these procedures. Then, in still another office, Dai saw a practice he had long heard about, the distributing of “gag fees”. “Line up! There’s a bit for everyone,” [those in charge said].

This old soldier of journalism, [Dai], took out his camera at the top of the third-floor stairwell, adjusted his wide-angle lens and flash and readied his auto focus. At 6:48pm he slipped into a room where six or seven people were surrounding the registration desk and, click click, took two shots in quick succession. Then he went out into the hallway and took three more shots of people lining up. In less than a minute, he had bounded back down to the registration desk in the lobby, where he grabbed a copy of the “Shanxi Huobao Ganhe Mine Limited Co. Office Building Visitors Registration Form” (山西霍宝干河煤矿有限公司办公楼来客登记薄) with one hand while clicking the shutter release button of his camera with the other . . . so that he was able to take a shot of all four registration rosters as photographic evidence.

Dai did not recognize a single one of the many journalists registering as visitors . . . When he looked carefully at the 30 media on the photograph [he had taken of the roster], most of them were economic or science and technology publications, or magazines about law, safety or finance. A certain party daily from Shanxi had three reporters registered, and a certain consumer-related newspaper [like this one?] had two reporters registered . . .

Dai Xiaojun first posted his account of the gag fee incident on his personal weblog (hence the attention in the China Youth Daily lede to web aliases), but the blog was eventually taken down by authorities.

The China Youth Daily was the first mainstream paper to hit the story, even though it took one month. The following day, on October 28, more than 40 media, including The Beijing News (新京报), reported the facts quotiding the China Youth Daily. Among those, ten published editorials or commented about the incident in their “hot spots” (热点). On October 29 other 20 media wrote the story, with only two of them running editorials on the topic. On October 30, 36 more articles on the story were published, mostly as a follow-up from the days before.

The only party newspaper to publish a commentary on the story was the Guangzhou Daily (广州日报), on October 28.

Shanxi Daily (山西日报), the provincial party newspaper for Shanxi province, where the incident occurred, had not run a single story on the incident as of October 30. But commercial papers in the province, including Shanxi Evening News, did run news reports about the gag fee incident today. [See the bottom of this article for links to more editorials in Chinese.] 

The editorial by the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) discusses the common practice among mine owners of paying gag fees and its relevance to the question of “fake” and “real” reporters.

The Southern Metropolis Daily begins by calling the Linfen case “old news,” “because stories of this kind are far from new in Shanxi’s mining industry and even across the country,” then moves on to a discussion of “fake” and “real” reporters after briefly mentioning the Lan Chengzhang case.

The editorial’s conclusion takes a jab at the moralistic tone that often characterizes official campaigns against media corruption, in which problems are blamed on individual “fake reporters”:

Actually, I think that the most crucial question is not whether journalists are fake or real, but whether or not they can be successfully “gagged.” Why are there so many “fake journalists” fishing in troubled water to begin with? Any intelligent person in the world can become a transmitter of news, which is to say that anyone can be a journalist. It’s not necessary to carry a press card in your pocket, especially nowadays when information is developing so much. So a “real reporter” may get an ounce of respect from the owner of a mine, while a “fake reporter” becomes Lan Chengzhang. This is all about what kind of influence the disseminator can muster, and what kind of backing he has.

The influence a reporter has isn’t necessarily a function of his or her power of dissemination. This is particularly true in the Internet age, when a story posted on a website or bulletin-board site can inform the whole world in the blink of an eye. But in China today, real influence is decided by special groups of people. If something happens but the right people aren’t there to draw attention to it, those responsible can go right on as though nothing happened at all.

For example, Sun Chunlong (孙春龙), a journalist for Oriental Outlook, used his blog to break the story about the cover-up of the Lifan landslide. And some things that only a few people see, like internal reference documents (内参), can exercise more pressure on than mass media reports.

Besides, those media that hire “real reporters” have real strength to pit against mine owners, so that if the owner of a mine really wants to hush them up he has to pay a suitable price. If he resorts to violence, this is far riskier, so he’s better off just paying up for the peace and quiet he wants. As for those “fake reporters” taking a bit of light for themselves, well that’s just normal too. In those cases where police beat up or kill this or that citizen, it’s generally the “temporary workers” (临时工) [ie: the freelance reporters without official credentials] who are on top of the story first — and why shouldn’t they get to taste the soup for themselves? In all likelihood, these temporary workers are cooperating closely with “real reporters”, and they have the capability to report real stories too, so it is necessary to hush them up too.

The basic reason why fake and real reporters fly like a swarm of bees to cover mine disasters is that in today’s China the spread of information can be controlled, and that mean paying money is an effective way to hush people up. Otherwise, why would a mine boss waste so much money! Let’s think about this. If there was no strong external force capable of controlling the media and telling them what they can and cannot say, they could report the real facts with relative freedom . . . It’s precisely because mouths can be gagged so successfully, particularly those mouths that serve as information channels to key groups of people — and because even if someone exposes it online, it can disappear, as was the fate of Sun Chunlong’s blog report on the Lifan cover-up — that mine owners are willing to pay money, and both real and fake reporters can cash in.

I admire those people who aren’t subdued by force and who are untempted by money, but the majority of people go straight for profit, so in situations like this we see both fake and real reporters sticking together to get rich. Moral crusades against this kind of behavior just end up being anemic and ineffectual . . .

If the rights of the ordinary people are safeguarded, and if ordinary people can negotiate equally with local officials on a basis of legal equality, there will be no room for the buying of silence. The buying of silence is certainly hateful, but even more hateful is the institutional environment that allows silence to be propagated.

MORE CHINESE EDITORIALS:
City Evening News (城市晚报), “The ‘gag fee’ incident shames news media” (封口费事件让新闻媒体蒙羞), 28 October 2008.
Xi’an Evening News (西安晚报), “Re-thinking public information through the ‘gag fee’ problem”(由“封口费”反思信息公开), 28 October 2008.
Guangzhou Daily, “The two big miseries of queuing up to extort hush money” (排队领“封口费”的两大悲哀), 28 October 2008.
Morning News, (新闻晨报), “‘Gag fees’ require a more transparent control of the situation” (“封口费”呼唤监督环境更透明), 28 October 2008.
Shangdong Evening News (齐鲁晚报), “Mine owner pays ‘gag fee’ to cover up mine disaster” (为瞒矿难矿主狂发’封口费’), 28 October 2008.
Shangdong Evening News (齐鲁晚报), “Let’s publish the roster of the journalists who received gag fees during the mine disaster” (请公布矿难中收“封口费”的记者名单), 28 October 2008.

FURTHER READING:
Shanxi publicizes names of six media guilty of accepting ‘gag fees,'” World Executive Digest, October 31, 2008
Most bought-off journalists in Shanxi scandal were fakes, says local government,” Danwei.org, October 30, 2008
Shanxi scandal: coal mine ‘shut up’ cash,” Zhongnanhai Blog, October 29, 2008
Dark Journalism,” Gady Epstein, Forbes, July 21, 2008
Out of Control: Chinese Journalists Struggle for Independence and Professionalism,” David Bandurski and Qian Gang, Global Journalist, Spring 2007
China’s Yellow Journalism,” David Bandurski, Far Eastern Economic Review, June 2006

[Posted by Emma Lupano, October 30, 2008, 4:35pm]

2 Comments to “Linfen “gag fees” spark media ethics debate in China”

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