Reporter disputes initial findings in the “gag fee” case

By Emma Lupano and David Bandurski — Dai Xiaojun (戴骁军), the journalist and blogger credited with the scoop on the Linfen “gag fee” case, in which scores of journalists accepted cash to keep the story of a deadly mine accident under wraps, has told Chinese media he believes the full extent of media corruption at Linfen is not reflected in official findings. Dai also revealed that he and his family are now receiving constant threats from anonymous callers. [Frontpage image: Snapshot of register of allegedly bribed journalists taken by Dai Xiaojun.]

According to preliminary findings released last week by the General Administration for Press and Publications (GAPP), 28 journalists from 23 media accepted payoffs at Linfen on September 24 and 25. Of these, only two journalists possessed press cards issued by GAPP, the narrow official standard the government often upholds to determine “real” as opposed to “fake” reporters.

But according to Chinese news coverage, Dai alleges that the cover up in Shanxi is still going on, and he estimates that close to one-hundred journalists were on the scene collecting “hush money,” or “gag fees” (封口费).

The China Youth Daily was the first mainstream newspaper last week to report the story of Dai and how he broke the “gag fee” case on his weblog. Dai’s story has subsequently been followed by many Chinese media.

According to our database search nearly one hundred articles have mentioned his name since the case broke.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of QQ news coverage today of Dai Xiaojun’s interview with Phoenix TV.]

The following is a translation of portions of an article from today’s news section at QQ.com reporting statements Dai Xiaojun has made to various media:

Exposer of the gag fee case following [the Linfen] mine accident says the mine is still covering up the truth

After interviews in Beijing with CCTV and Phoenix TV, Dai Xiaojun, the reporter who instantly became famous for exposing the story of journalists receiving “hush money” after a mine disaster in Shanxi, could not stay longer and had to rush back to his home in Taiyuan. Back at home, the threating phone calls are becoming more and more frequent and his wife and son need him more than ever. In an interview with our newspaper yesterday, Dai Xiaojun said he harbors no regrets about exposing the ugly incident and even challenged the latest results of the investigation. “The owner of the mine is still telling lies. He is still hiding the number of the reporters involved and the amount of money they were paid,” Dai said. He said he entered the media industry 22 years ago. Three years ago he became a photographer at the Shanxi bureau of West Times.

In the afternoon of September 25, Dai received a phone call from a friend who works in the media, saying that “there was an incident at a mine in Hongdong county, and reporters are lining up to extort money.” After this phone call, Dai and a fellow blogger called “Live from Shanxi” drove a car from Taiyuan to Hongdong county. They arrived at the office of the Huobaoganhe Coal mine (山西霍宝干河煤矿) in the evening and Dai saw with his own eyes a practice he had long heard about, the distributing of “gag fees.”

The news article later goes on to describe Dai’s lingering doubts about the investigation into the Linfen case.

After news that the mine was distributing hush money to reporters was exposed to the outside, the General Administration for Press and Publication (GAPP) and Shanxi press authorities sent inspectors early on October 25 and 27 to carry out an investigation of the situation. The initial results of these investigations suggest that 28 journalists from 23 media were listed on rosters kept [at a registration desk] at the entrance on September 24 and 25. Of these, two journalists possessed press cards issued by GAPP [the findings suggest]. Talking about these findings, Dai Xiaojun said that “actually there are still very big discrepancies, showing clearly that the owner of the mine continues to lie.”

Dai said that according to his estimates, there were up to 100 people in the mine offices and corridors waiting to receive their gag fees that evening. “If you look at the photographs I took alone, there are already more than 40 people. The owner of the mine is still keeping to full number of journalists under wraps, as well as the amount of money he gave them.”

Dai said his friend has kept some photographs as evidence. Our paper called the blogger “Live from Shanxi” yesterday and he said he has a number of digital photographs as well as short videos. “If the investigative organisations require them, I’d be happy to bring them out,” he said.

[More on media appearances by Dai] . . . On November 1, Dai flew from Shanxi to Beijing to participate in a [TV] program, but as soon as he had landed and switched on his mobile, he received a call from his wife. “There was deep concern in her voice, and she told me that in the space of an hour she had received more than ten threatening phone calls.” Dai said he has received threatening calls directly as well. “They call from unlisted numbers, say something brief and then hang up,” he said, adding that the calls involve not just threats to him but to the safety of his family.

A spokeperson for West Times said in recent interviews with media that Dai Xiaojun is not a formal reporter (正式记者) for the newspaper. Responding to this statement, Dai said his “heart felt cold,” but he stressed that posts made to his own weblog are not in any way associated with West Times.

In a statement issued late last week, the ACJA condemned the practice of offering or accepting “gag fees.” But the official organization was careful to emphasize that such acts in the Linfen case were undertaken primarily by “fake reporters,” so defined not by unprofessional conduct itself but because they were not in possession of officially-issued press cards. [See CMP: “What does it mean to be a ‘real journalist’ in China?“]

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of ACJA page on Xinhuanet with large headline on the association’s Linfen “gag fee” statement.]

The ACJA statement followed a press conference on October 29 in which Shanxi officials announced the findings of their preliminary investigation into the Linfen “gag fee” incident.

A translation of the ACJA statement as reported by Xinhua follows:

“All-China Journalists Association issues statement strongly condemning the offering and receiving of ‘gag fees,’ vows to strengthen the campaign against fake reporters”

(Xinhuanet, Beijing, October 31). A representative from the All-China Journalists Association (全国新闻工作者协会/记协for short) issued a statement today on the acceptance of “gag fees” by journalists following an accident at Shanxi’s Huobaoganhe Coal Mine (山西霍宝干河煤矿). They said [the ACJA] strongly condemns the practice of paying “gag fees, and that those ‘black horses’ (害群之马) of the news profession who accepted “gag fees” should be severely punished. [The association vowed that it would] crack down on those members of society (社会人员) who impersonate journalists in order to carry out extort or blackmail, [and said that] news workers’ normal right to interview (正当的采访权益) must be staunchly protected.

On September 20 this year a production accident occurred at the Huobaoganhe Coal Mine in which one worker died. After the accident occurred, 28 people from a total of 23 media arrived on the scene in the name of carrying out reporting (以记者名义) and accepted “gag fees” offered by the mine. After this incident was revealed by some media, it was given a high priority by the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) and by local press officials in Shanxi (山西省新闻出版局), which conducted two investigations. According to preliminary findings, two of the people among those who accepted “gag fees” possessed press cards issued by GAPP and the vast majority were members of society impersonating news outfits . . .

The ACJA representative said the investigation of this incident should be an opportunity to intensify the crackdown on “fake journalists.” Those people who use fake press cards (假记者证) or impersonate journalists to carry out illegal activities, [they said], should be quickly handed over to law-enforcement and their cases handled according to the law, in order that normal news activities can be protected and the purity of news teams (新闻队伍的纯洁) be ensured. At the same time, the All-China Journalists Association staunchly protects news workers’ normal right to interview, and supports normal supervision by public opinion (舆论监督) activities on the part of news workers.

In today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, scholar Ding Dong (丁东) adds to the “gag fee” debate, writing about the role of government power in suppressing crucial information, and concludes with a warning that adroitly turns the Chinese term for “watchdog journalism” on its head to warn against official monitoring and control of public opinion.

Ding also invokes two previous stories that were suppressed in Shanxi, those at Lifan and Xiangfen. [For more background on the Lifan landslide, see Roland Soong’s summary at ESWN.]

For readers new to the Lifan story, here’s a quick recap . . . In late August 2008, Sun Chunlong, a reporter for Oriental Outlook magazine published a report online called, “Lifan: the truth in limbo” (娄烦:被拖延的真相), but the report was deleted. Several days later Sun posted an open letter to Shanxi’s acting provincial governor, and three days after that Wen Jiabao officially commented on an internal reference document, or neican (内参), that mentioned that “an informant had published a letter on a blog saying that deaths in a mudslide on August 1 in Shanxi’s Lifan County had been covered up.” Only then there was a turn in the Lifan incident.

Ding writes the following about Sun Chunlong and the gagging of the Lifan story:

When you look at Sun Chunlong’s (孙春龙) experiences in trying to report the truth, it’s not difficult to see that the system of gagging information does not just work on one level. The gag system (封口机制) can at the very least be divided into two types. The first is corruption that comes with money; the second is suppression that arises from power. When company bosses use payouts to suppress information, this is just a clumsy method. If a journalist is short on neither conscience nor cash, this method can quite easily fail. But power is far more effective. In order to prevent bad news from getting out, local officials can mobilize the police, keeping reporters away from the scene of the accident, and they can even threaten the personal safety of journalists. Other government offices play along, working together to present a false front to the news media. Local officials inevitably have their own interests vested in these accidents, and they cover them up so that they will not have to take responsibility or be disciplined, so they can protect their official posts. If watchdog journalism [or “supervision by public opinion”] by domestic media is not restricted, it’s very possible that we will break through this gag system that works for local officials. The censoring of Sun Chunlong’s earliest report online happened ultimately because websites have no power to resist these rules [that work in favor of local officials]. And it’s because these rules exist that reports on the Lifan incident could not serve as warnings against the Xiangfen (襄汾) disaster [that happened subsequently and killed at least 276 people]. These rules, I think, should properly be called ‘power’s supervision of public opinion’ (权力对舆论的监督) [a distortion of “supervision by public opinion,” or “watchdog journalism”]. If the supervision [by power] of public opinion suppresses supervision by public opinion, the gag system will become a normal fixture of our life and society.

[Posted by Emma Lupano and David Bandurski, November 4, 2008, 4:17pm HK]

One Comment to “Reporter disputes initial findings in the “gag fee” case”

  1. […] one men dead. The mine had not reported the fatality to authorities. See more on the topic here and here. Aside from being an environmentally destructive industry, coal mine politics in China are also […]

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