No power for media, no power for citizens

On July 1 social media in China buzzed with the news that Shi Junrong (石俊荣), a reporter for the Xi’an Evening News in Shaanxi province, had been suspended after writing a report about local government officials smoking costly luxury cigarettes (see Shi’s blog here). Up until his reported suspension, Shi was the Wei’an city bureau chief of the Xi’an Evening News, which is overseen by the top Party leadership in the city of Xi’an.

Shi Jurong’s Sina Weibo account is still active here.

Making waves today in China — at least in media circles — is an editorial on the Shi Junrong case written by journalist Cao Lin (曹林) in China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Youth League with a longstanding reputation for solid journalism against the odds. The paper has given us top journalists like CMP fellows Li Datong, He Yanguang, Lu Yuegang and Liu Chang, to mention just a few.

[ABOVE: An editorial at the top of the opinion page in today’s China Youth Daily argues that the “weakness” of China’s journalists reveals the weakness of Chinese society and Chinese citizens.]

In the editorial, Cao makes the case that the failure to protect the rights of journalists as they exercise the public’s right to know and right to monitor power, is a failure to guarantee the most basic civil rights of China’s people. He goes further in arguing that no nation can be strong when its citizens are weak.

Cao’s editorial has so far been shared widely across China, including on official websites like that of Xinhua News Agency. The editorial was even shared today through the verified Weibo account of Xinwen Lianbo, the nightly official newscast on China Central Television.

And writing on Sina Weibo today, an editor at the official People’s Daily steamed:

Not even a pack of cigarettes can be monitored. A society in which things cannot be reported or remarked, what kind of society is that? Why is it that the relevant [government] departments see the four rights said to be protected in the [political report] to the 17th National Congress [in 2007] (the right to know, right to express, right to participate and right to monitor), and Premier Wen’s words about creating the conditions for the people to monitor government, as just puffs of wind sweeping past their ears?

Cao Lin re-posted that editor’s remarks on his Weibo, further spinning conversation around his own editorial to the issue of China’s international credibility and soft power (an issue that concludes his piece), and heaping more blame on leaders in Shaanxi province:

China has spent so much money propagating China’s image around the world. It’s bought whole pages in foreign media, built Confucius Institutes and flexed its muscle through events like the Olympic Games and the World Expo. But perhaps all of this arduous image building collapses under a single story like that of the forced abortion in Shaanxi province.

The following is a selected (but more or less full) translation of Cao’s editorial in today’s China Youth Daily:

With powerless journalists, the people of a nation and a nation itself are powerless
By Cao Lin (曹林)
China Youth Daily
July 3, 2012
Page 2

When a certain media in Henan province revealed some negative news about a certain company, the head of that company warned the reporter via his microblog account: “Don’t get excited so quickly. Wait for stern word from the provincial propaganda department when they want a chat!”

It can’t be said for certain that the journalist’s report was accurate, and media can’t stand in for justice. But this verbal threat emerging from the mouth of power is cause for disgust. Journalists [in China] routinely meet with reproach. “Media always cause so much trouble for us,” [they’ll say]. Or, with a mocking tone, “All this for a couple of article fees.” Or, with a note of threat, “Keep probing and we’ll detain you.” Of course, the threats don’t just stop at words. There are cases in which journalists are beaten or “pursued across provinces” (跨省追捕).

The case of the Shaanxi reporter, who exposed inflated cigarette prices and was then suspended in an official pressure bid to conceal the truth, is a representative case. A series of cases of violence against journalists have once again left those in the media with a distinct sense of powerlessness, of being thwarted and insulted. For reporters to conduct watchdog journalism — or “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督) — under such massive pressure, exposing corruption and lashing back against unfairness, only to be shot in the back and pressured into the silence of the winter cicada, it leaves one’s heart cold.

After people posted on Weibo the news that the reporter [from Shaanxi] had been suppressed, there were countless reposts and comments [on social media] voicing support [for the journalist]. One government official said to me with some feeling: you reporters really mustn’t be provoked; provoke one and you’ve provoked them all. In fact, while the news of this reporter being silenced got a lot of attention on Weibo, what the story really underscored was not that journalists mustn’t be provoked, but rather that they are so easy to abuse.

First of all, the sense of collective fury [among journalists] suggests that the silencing of this journalist isn’t an isolated case, but in fact a regularly occurring phenomenon, and this is why it stirred up the sense of general concern among colleagues. Secondly, it suggests that journalists have a deeply-ingrained sense of victimhood. It is only in the face of the insufferable arrogance of the strong that the weak manage to huddle together for protection.

What gives the media heart is that in cases like this the public invariably voices firm support [for journalists]. This sense of support for the media evinces a precious rational attitude on the part of the public. They understand that the weak position journalists have in facing up to power is but an example in miniature of the general poor standing of civil rights. Behind these weak journalists stand a weak civil society and a weak public.

It is a journalist’s duty to monitor power and expose wrongdoing. If we hold that this is a kind of right, then this right has its origins in the idea of civil rights that holds that “power arises from the people, and so every citizen that the right to criticize and monitor the government.” Many people llike to refer to the media as the “fourth estate” (第四种权力). If what the media and journalists hold in their hands is really a form of power, then this power also arises from the people, a [journalists are] the lookouts at the masthead, standing for the sake of the public’s right to know, representing the public in its right to monitor power, watching out for the interests of the people. And so, journalists’ rights are a barometer for the rights of a society and public at large. When the rights of journalists are violated, when the rights of journalists are not protected, there is little hope that the rights of the people will be ensured, that their rights will not be violated. If, in the face of power, journalists have no dignity, then no member of the public has dignity either.

In comparison to ordinary citizens, journalists do not have special rights or privileges. Journalists cannot be separated out from the citizenry. . . Journalists’ rights are one part of the rights of citizens as a whole. Not protecting journalists means not protecting citizens. If a society cannot protect the journalists who act for the public’s right to know, if those who report the truth are suppressed, if the truth is willfully hidden and information manipulated and monopolized, then the public remains ignorant, then public opinion cannot be voiced, then the rights of the people cannot be upheld.

Therefore, citizens with a sense of public responsibility, with a civil society that is increasingly cohesive, will naturally read their own powerlessness as citizens, and the powerlessness of society, in the powerlessness of their journalists. In truth, the powerlessness of journalists does not just mean the powerlessness of a nation’s people, it spells the spells the powerlessness of the nation itself. A strong country must have strong people (强大的国民), and the strength of the people demands that their right to know be fully protected.

Only when journalists are strong will the corrupt officials be in a weak position, and only then will they succumb to the strength of supervision by public opinion. Only then will [corrupt officials] not fire back at journalists: “This money is nothing, why don’t you go expose an official whose taken more money?. Only when journalists have power will public power come to heel, working strictly for the public benefit and not for private profit. . .

The highest levels [of the Party and government] have again and again emphasized “the need to create the conditions for the people to monitor the government,” the need to “create the conditions for the people to speak the truth,” about “not lightly branding different opinions as noise and static.”

Building up the nation’s image is not a matter of spending vast amounts of money to broadcast propaganda advertisements in foreign countries. Rather, it is about real and true patterns of citizenship, and about civil rights.

The original Chinese text of the China Youth Daily editorial follows:

曹林 《 中国青年报 》( 2012年07月03日 02 版)










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