During a June 13 forum on food safety in China, Mao Qun’an (毛群安), head of the news and publicity office of China’s Ministry of Health, said the ministry would build a “blacklist system,” maintaining records of “media journalists at various levels” responsible for false reports on food safety and other health problems. Mao said the journalist blacklist was meant to “combat or prevent media at various levels from polluting the broadcast [or news] environment (传播环境), and offering misleading information.”
News of the planned blacklist has understandably rattled Chinese journalists and many internet users, who have attacked the blacklist as unnecessary, ineffective, irresponsible and an overstepping of the ministry’s authority.
Certainly, the Ministry of Health has been under a great deal of pressure in recent months, as health and food safety scandals have cropped up one after the other, calling into question a dizzying array of food products, everything from pork to chrysanthemums. These successive scandals have exposed the ineffectiveness of government safety inspectors and created a widespread sense of desperation among Chinese consumers.
Frustration with the Ministry of Health, and the remarks from Mao Qun’an, is clear in today’s newspapers.
The Information Times, a commercial spin-off of Guangzhou Daily, admitted that there had been problems in many news reports, due largely to insufficient expertise and training on the health and food safety beat. But the paper suggested the ministry’s response was an overreaction:
There certainly are such problems as dissemination of inaccurate information, and just as spokesman [Mao] said, “Many media have in their reports equated the use of additives and the illegal use of additives.” . . . But to suggest that media have ‘intentionally misled the people’ is a bit hard for anyone to stomach . . . Clearly, in creating its own blacklist of journalist, the Ministry of Health is overstepping its authority. Therefore, to say this blacklist is an attempt by the ministry to shield itself from supervision by public opinion [or Chinese watchdog journalism] is not as on the mark as saying it is a fig leaf, disguising the [ministry's] own ineffectiveness is conducting its work. It even turns [the blame for] the chaotic situation in food safety on to “journalists at various levels.”
Jinan Times, a commercial spin-off of the official Jinan Daily, said it was only natural that the announcement of a planned blacklist angered people, given the tough climate already facing Chinese media:
As the news media’s right to report (报道权) and right to interview (采访权) have not yet received sufficient protection, and as the general environment for watchdog journalism (舆论监督) remains poor, it naturally angers society to hear that Ministry of Health officials are talking about creating a ‘journalist blacklist’. We should know that while news media bear a duty to conduct watchdog journalism, and news reporters have been dubbed the ‘uncrowned kings’, in exercising this function media and journalists suffer more limitations than they enjoy protections. Most urgent right now is protecting under the law the interview rights of journalists and the media’s right to watchdog journalism. What we don’t need is to rack our brains to further limit or cancel these rights . . .
And the newspaper further implied that by introducing such measures, the Ministry of Health — and China’s government more generally — risked setting itself in further opposition to the interests of an already frustrated public:
Of course, if the Ministry of Health or other government offices want to create these ‘journalist blacklists’, they face a great deal of risk themselves. Because functional departments, the news media and the public have very different standards for determining what it means to ‘disseminate inaccurate information’ or ‘willfully mislead the public.” And these ideas might diverge to the point that functional departments ‘blacklist’ reporters who have the courage to expose food safety problems and are regarded as ‘heroes’ by the media and the public. Look for example at how the reporters who exposed the melamine milk scandal and the pork scandal have earned the respect of the public.
The Daily Times, a commercial spin-off of the official Liaoning Daily, wrote today that the idea to create of a journalist blacklist is “laughable” and “without any legal basis.”
No measures from organs of public power can be undertaken with such liberty, but must be authorized by law before they are done. What law is there that authorizes the Ministry of Health to deprive a journalist of his right to engage in supervision by public opinion [or watchdog journalism]?