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Media: China turns a page on independent journalism

August 5, 2010

The Globe and Mail (Canada)
August 4, 2010

For years, there hasn't been much nice said about
Chinese journalists. Most were seen as either
government mouthpieces or bribe-taking corporate
shills. But the reputation of China's news media
is on the rise lately after a series of incidents
in which reporters refused to back down in the
face of intimidation, sticking to their stories
even if it meant getting beaten or jailed.

The most dramatic case involves Qiu Ziming, a
28-year-old investigative reporter in the
Shanghai bureau of the Economic Observer
newspaper, one of China's most independent-minded publications.

In June, Mr. Qiu filed a series of articles that
pointed to insider training at Kan Specialty
Materials, a high-profile firm in eastern
Zhejiang province that manufactures paper and
batteries. The articles outlined how the company
had allegedly used its political connections to
acquire state property worth a reported 600
million yuan ($91-million) for just 890,000 yuan.

The company's outraged directors responded by
showing just how much political clout they had.
At the request of Kan Specialty Materials, a
nationwide arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Qiu
on the charge that he had maliciously damaged the company's reputation.

What Kan Specialty Materials hadn't been banking
on was the emerging sense of kinship and defiance
in China's long-quiescent news media. When Mr.
Qiu refused to hand himself over and instead went
on the lam, he immediately became China's most
famous scribe-on-the-run, turned into a free
speech hero by his fellow journalists.

"I strongly support [the editors] of Economic
Observer! And I salute all media people with
conscience!" wrote someone who gave his name as
Hefei on the sina.com Web portal. It was a
widespread sentiment. An online survey conducted
by sina.com found that 89 per cent of the 116,541
respondents wanted to see the warrant for Mr. Qiu's arrest revoked.

Though Kan Specialty Materials is still pursuing
its case, Zhejiang police eventually relented and
withdrew the warrant on the grounds there was not
enough evidence. The police even issued a
face-to-face apology to Mr. Qiu, who told local
media that he hadn't slept for days because of the warrant.

"The public supported us, I think, because [Mr.
Qiu] was only a journalist doing what he was
supposed to be doing, and he met with such
disaster,” said Guo Hongchao, a senior editor at
the Economic Observer. "The case illustrates that
the media and journalists are actually quite
fragile [in China]. I think most journalists --
though not all -- are working hard for the people's right to information."

In the wake of Mr. Qiu's victory, a string of
similar cases has come to light exposing the
dangers Chinese journalists face while doing
their jobs. Last Wednesday, family members of two
journalists involved in exposing the pollution of
a major river -- and subsequent attempts to hush
the story up with bribes – by Zijin Mining Corp.,
China's biggest publicly traded gold producer,
were involved in mysterious car accidents.

Two days later, the offices of the Shanghai-based
National Business Daily were stormed by employees
of shampoo-maker BaWang International Group
Holding Ltd. shortly after the newspaper reported
that Bawang shampoos contained a cancer-causing
chemical. Such brute intimidation of journalists
is not uncommon in China. What was unusual was
the way the normally docile Chinese media pushed
back by publicizing accounts of the attacks on
front pages and newscasts around the country.

China's newspapers and television stations --
while all still subject to official censorship --
have shown increasing independence in recent
years, led by a trio of feisty newspapers owned
by the Southern Media Group, a Guangdong-based
publisher that recently tried to purchase
Newsweek magazine. While news outlets must still
follow old-fashioned political directives
regarding anything to do with "sensitive" topics
such as Tibet, Taiwan and the country's one-party
political system, articles exposing corruption by
businesses or low-ranking government officials is
now standard fare in newspapers and newscasts.

In the wake of Mr. Qiu's case, the official body
that oversees the Chinese media, the General
Administration of Press and Publication, weighed
in with a statement seen by some as conditionally
supportive of investigative journalism.

"Media organizations have the right to know,
interview, publish, criticize and supervise
issues related to national and public interests,”
read the official statement, which was carried on
the front page of the official China Daily
newspaper. "Normal and legal newsgathering
activities by media organizations and their
reporters and editors are protected by law," it added.

However, Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based
analyst of Chinese politics, said the GAPP
statement was as notable for what it didn't say
as for what it did. The silent message, he said,
was that "the media can carry out its functions
only so long as certain no-go areas are respected."
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