May 26, 2014 07:30 PM

Legal Punches for Two Reporters' Sealed Lips

Mao Ouyang Kun

(Beijing) – Courts in the capital are mulling over what's being described as the first legal attack against the use of anonymous sources in news reports published by the Chinese media.

The charges leveled against the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend newspaper and The Beijing News revolve around claims that in 2012 they printed articles defaming a trade group called the World Luxury Association and its chairman, Mao Ouyang Kun, also known as Ouyang Kun.

Mao has been defending his personal and the organization's reputation for more than two years in the face of critics who say WLA, which bills itself as a market analysis firm for the global luxury consumer-goods sector, exists on paper only. The critics include a popular blogger whose claims were quoted in newspaper reports and whose WLA-bashing posts on weibo, the country's answer to Twitter, went viral.

Mao, incensed that his critics have never been named in public, has taken the newspapers to court.

So far, Mao has won his lawsuits by convincing courts that the newspapers were wrong to print critics' claims without revealing their identities.

Beijing's Chaoyang District Court in February found Southern Weekend and The Beijing News guilty of harming WLA's reputation in articles that relied on information from anonymous sources. The court ordered the papers to delete the articles from their websites and publish formal apologies. Moreover, The Beijing News was told to pay Mao 20,000 yuan.

The newspapers have appealed to Beijing's Third Intermediate People's Court. The appeals are pending.

Meanwhile in May, the Chaoyang court started considering a separate lawsuit against The Beijing News filed by Mao.

Ethical Issue

The courts' decisions against the media outlets surprised Professor Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University's College of Journalism and Communication. He said although the articles may have had some minor flaws, they were fundamentally factual.

The courts based their rulings on an excessively strict standard of accountability for investigative journalists, Zhan said. He fears the ruling will have a chilling effect on the press' professional duty as a public watchdog.

The rulings also shed light on the legal debate over the use and protection of anonymous sources by Chinese media outlets, said the executive director of the China University of Political Science's Media Legal Research Center, Xu Xun.

Information and sources of information are essential for journalists, Xu said, and sometimes a media outlet will make an ethical decision to accept information without revealing the source's identity. Forcing journalists to break such vows will make information gathering more difficult, he said, and could threaten the media industry.

The defendants have not taken Mao's lawsuits lying down. On April 25, The Beijing News claimed in a report filed with the Beijing Public Security Bureau, a police agency, that Mao had tampered with the evidence he presented in court. The newspaper further claimed Mao arranged for a man named Wang Ziqiang to lie for him in court.

Wang's testimony, which was cited as factual evidence by the courts in their anti-media rulings, was that he had been interviewed by Beijing News reporters and that they had tried to bribe him. He said the reporters had wanted him to lie about Mao.

The Beijing News' blast at Mao and Wang came 10 months after Southern Weekend made similar accusations in a letter to the police office overseeing Beijing's Chaoyang District. The newspaper claimed Wang had given false information in a ploy to frame Southern Weekend and a reporter, Chen Zhongxiaolu.

Chen co-authored with other reporters two investigative pieces about WLA in June 2012. The Beijing News later published a similar pair of investigative articles.

The papers said WLA is not, as it claims, a non-profit organization registered in the United States with headquarters in New York and branches around the world. Instead, they said, it's a for-profit company registered in China and run by Mao, a former actor.

The papers also called into question WLA's ability to provide data and analyze the luxury goods market. The organization claims to be the world's largest luxury-sector researcher, and says it can publish industry reports and organize exhibitions.

The Beijing News said in its appeal that WLA is a shell with no real operations, and that it falsely claims to have offices in "a dozen or so" countries. Southern Weekend's legal counsel, Peng Chunwen, said it's deceitful to use "world" in the organization's name and claim its data is genuine.

Meanwhile, a popular blogger writing under the weibo name "President Flower" has also blasted WLA, saying its New York registration was phony. His posts attracted widespread online attention in 2012 and added fuel to the fire stoked by the newspaper reports.

Flower, whose real name has not been released by authorities, said he later received death threats from a weibo user. Another blogger who criticized WLA under the name Chen Guo IBM also received threats.

Despite the threats, Flower continued to challenge WLA and Mao, posting weibo critiques almost daily for a month. His blog's popularity swelled.

Last September, Chaoyang police arrested Flower on extortion charges. He was questioned at a police station and released on bail the next day.

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