Nov 06, 2013 07:42 PM

The Quandary China's Journalists Find Themselves In

A coal mine in Yunnan Province

Chen Yong Zhou, a reporter at Guangzhou's New Express newspaper, was detained in mid-October by police who had come all the way from Hunan Province. They accused the reporter of damaging the reputation and commercial interests of Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Development Co. Ltd., a Hunan construction machinery and sanitation equipment firm about which Chen had reported.

Three days after his arrest things became even more dramatic. As the New Express and other media outlets were all busy showing solidarity with Chen – convinced he was being persecuted for doing his job — the reporter confessed on CCTV that he had been bribed to report false information. Not only was this a slap in the face for all those who rallied to support him, but Chen and New Express suddenly went from being victims to loathed figures across China.

In fact, outraged Chinese have used a particularly insulting term for Chen: "jize," or prostitute. Though it is vulgar, the name-calling actually nails the crux of the problem. In China, freedom of the press suffers from both money and power.

Journalists like Chen all too often accept dirty money. Five years ago, for example — on China Reporter's Day — many journalists acted particularly disgracefully when they took hush money to cover up a mine explosion in Shanxi Province. Both actual journalists and others simply posing as reporters rushed to the site, not to report the disaster but to receive the "mouth-sealing fee" the mining company was handing out to conceal the disaster.

Unscrupulous Media

Reporters in China suffer a critical, and dangerous, quandary somewhat unique to their place in the world. Should they go against their conscience and accept bribes, or should they risk their lives to investigate and expose the truth?

Alas, reporters in the country are even more notorious than those unconscionable mining company bosses, who characterize crooked journalists as "a bunch of beggars holding out a rice bowl called news."

In 2002, 11 journalists accepted bribes to cover up a gold mine disaster in Shanxi, where local authorities and the owner of the unauthorized mine wanted to avoid scrutiny. Instead of going to the mine to cover the incident, these journalists showed up at the offices of the local Communist Party committee and county government because they viewed these places as the real gold mine.

But even if there are some bad apples among Chinese journalists, they are perhaps no less wicked than their employers. In 2007, for example, a reporter named Lan Chengzhang tried blackmailing the owner an illegal mine. He was then beaten to death by the owner's thugs. After the incident, the newspaper Lan worked for denied that he was a reporter there. The employers for the 11 reporters involved in covering up the major mine disaster in 2002 did the same.

Strictly speaking, these reporters do not conform to the definition of journalists because in China they are often entrusted with multiple duties — such as being ad salesmen and handling publicity — in addition to their editorial tasks. The nature of these multiple functions creates obvious conflicts of interest. And it is the newspapers that arrange their jobs this way.

The truth is that compared to the taker of "mouth-sealing fees," the state press is much more unscrupulous than the individual journalists on their payrolls. For instance, a few years ago CCTV revealed abuses by Baidu, the major Internet services company whose pay-per-click ad system led to fraud. Baidu search results helped send junk information designed to mislead the public. When this was exposed, many people predicted that Baidu would have to pay a fortune to silence CCTV from further reporting.

Sure enough, as Baidu's chief financial officer, Jennifer Li, later confirmed, Baidu's "marketing expenses" soared by more than 40 million yuan in the quarter following the scandal. The vast majority of these marketing-related expenses were given to CCTV.

Graft in the press is of course shocking. But it is even worse to silence journalistic endeavors by intimidation. Because legitimate reporters in the mainstream press are always afraid of crossing a red line, crooked reporters are given the opportunity to do bad deeds. China has, unfortunately, too many journalists who either have no backbone or zero dignity.

At the end of the day the biggest disgrace is that a large segment of the press in China has lost any sense of shame. This is a disgrace not only for the press but also for all of society. In today's commercialized society, there is nothing that cannot be bought. Officials can be bribed, as can journalists and their employers.

In the novel I'm Liu Yuejin, by Liu Zhenyun, a policeman named Old Xie often arrests the bad guys he does not know while letting the ones he does know go free. Though he has a conscience, he comforts himself with the knowledge that "all crows are black." In other words, evildoers and evil deeds are everywhere anyway. Too many of China's journalists embrace this same philosophy.

The author is an associate professor of the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University

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