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:

记者无力,则国民无力国家无力
曹林 《 中国青年报 》( 2012年07月03日 02 版)

河南某媒体曝光一家公司的负面新闻,该公司一名负责人通过微博对记者说:别高兴得太早了,等着省委宣传部、市委宣传部的诫勉谈话吧!
记者报道不一定准确,媒体并非就代表着正义,但这种以权压人的威胁口吻让人反感。记者采访中时常遭遇种种呵斥——会被指责“媒体尽给我们惹麻烦”,会被嘲讽“不就是为了挣两个稿费”,会被威胁“再采访就拘了你”。当然,不只是话语上的威胁,还不乏殴打记者和“跨省追捕”。

以陕西曝光天价烟的记者在隐秘的官方压力下被停职为代表,近来一系列记者受打压的事件,让媒体人隔段时间就会出现的受辱感、受挫感和无力感再次爆发。重重压力下履行舆论监督之职,曝光腐败鞭挞丑恶,却不料背后中枪,噤若寒蝉之余,更让人无比寒心。

有人在微博上发了记者被打压的信息后,引来无数转发、评论和声援,一个政府官员跟我感慨说:你们记者真惹不起,惹了一个就群情激愤了。其实,“记者被打压”的信息之所以在微博上引起极大关注,透出的信号不是“记者惹不起”,而恰恰是“记者很好惹”。其一,这种群情激愤,说明了记者受打压不是偶然个案,而是普遍现象,所以激起了从业者共有的焦虑和公众普遍的共鸣;其二,说明了记者骨子里有一种弱者意识,强者总是独来独往不可一世的,弱者才会惺惺相惜抱成一团。

令媒体人感动的是,在此类事件中,民众总是毫无保留地表达了支持。公众对媒体人的声援,表现出了一种可贵的公众理性,他们明白,记者面对公权力时的贫弱,是公民权利贫弱的一个缩影。弱势的记者群体背后,是弱势的公民社会和弱势的民众。

监督公权力,曝光丑恶,是记者的天职——如果说这是一种权利,它蕴含于“权力源于人民赋予,所以每个公民有权批评和监督政府”的公民权利,与公民权利共生同源。很多人喜欢将媒体称为社会的“第四种权力”——如果媒体和记者手中掌握的真是一种权力,这种权力也是源于民众授予,为了让民众知情,为了代表民众监督公权力,为了民众的利益而站在社会的船头作一个了望者。所以,记者权利是一个社会中民众权利的晴雨表,记者权利常受侵犯,记者权利缺乏保障,很难寄望民众的权利会有保障、民众的权利不受侵犯。桀熬不驯的公权力面前,记者没有尊严,其他公众更没有尊严。

相比普通公民,记者并没有特权,记者与公民无法分离。所以,并不存在“连记者权利都不受保护,更何况普通公民”的现象。记者权利是公民权利的一部分,记者就是公民,记者不受保护,就是公民不受保护。如果一个社会,担负着满足公众知情权的记者的权利得不到保护,报道真相的人被打压,真相被公然地遮掩,信息被操纵和垄断,民众不知情,民意就无法得到表达,民权就得不到伸张。

所以,有公共责任感的公民,一个告别一盘散沙的公民社会,会从记者的无力中,感受到公民的无力、社会的无力。——实际上,记者无力,不仅是国民无力,这个国家都会无力。一个强大的国家,应该有强大的国民,而国民的强大,应以知情权得到充分保障为前提。

记者有力,贪官污吏才会无力,腐败官员才会慑服于舆论监督的力量,而不会嚣张地反击记者“拿这点钱怎么了,你怎么不去曝光那些贪更多钱的官员”;记者有力,公权力才会被驯服,被规训于严格将权力用于为公众谋福利,而不是以权谋私;记者有力,社会的丑恶现象才会被揭露,而不是被一些人捂着捂着,捂成了危害社会的大矛盾、大麻烦;记者有力,民众才能知情,这个国家才会安全,诚如哲人所言,让人民知道的真相越多,这个国家就越安全;记者有力,记者身后的民众才会有力,国家的强大并不是表现在强大的官员、强势的权力上,而是表现在每个公民的强势上,不会有被“跨省追捕”的恐惧,不会担心警察破门而入,不会担心因言获罪……

高层一再强调“要创造条件让人民监督政府”、“创造条件让人民讲真话”、“不要轻易把不同意见说成杂音噪音”。能树立一个国家形象的,不是花天文数字般的钱去国外做形象广告,而是实实在在的公民形象、公民权利。

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