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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Washington Post: Sloppy China Journalism?

Article (washingtonpost.com)


China: Official CorruptionI am very wary of taking all news articles at face value. Some stand out like the proverbial and you automatically think that perhaps you had better do some extra research. Stories involving money tend to fall into this category. But others, reported by internationally recognised newspapers like the Washington Post, you normally tend to take them as written

One expects of this latter class of news organisation objectivity, a certain degree of source verification , general background checking and even, at the least, a quick glance at "Google".

In other words one expects professionalism. After all, as readers, we can not go off and research every article we read can we? We expect, and rightly so, that these "respected " papers already have done that, that is after all why we read them.

The Background

On March 23 Reporters Without Frontiers ran a story titled Plot against former bosses of newspaper Nanfang Dushi Bao condemning the jailing of two newspaper men and the arrest of another from a newspaper in Guangzhou city in Guangdong Province. The article stated reasonably emphatically that this was a beat up and meant to warn not only the journalists on the paper in question but the nation’s press generally from overstepping the mark. In other words "tow the line or we will come down on you just like this". When I use the word emphatic I mean real “man the ramparts” type article.

The article reported that the arrests were as a result of these noble journalists pushing the ideal of "freedom of the press" to the nth degree and in doing so upsetting the Chinese Communist party.

In particular the report identified two stories these supposed intrepid journalists had run that had brought the Chinese officials down on them like a ton of bricks. One was about SARS and the other, a reasonably noted one, about a Chinese student beaten to death in a police lock up in 2003.

On face value anyone reading the article would say " those bloody Chinese are at it again, trampling on the freedom of the press, jailing outspoken journalists, typical" and think nothing more of it.

For me there was one aspect of the report that did not feel right and I commented as much in my post on it the day after it was released.

The so-called "journalists" were charged with embezzlement and corruption, specifically, that they took monies from the company and paid themselves and others "Bonuses". The article stated that the two that have faced court and have been sentenced admitted they took money but argued mitigation as the practice of "bonuses" was a common one in the industry. The existence of this practice was reportedly verified by "Reporters without Frontiers" through several sources.

My post on this article said effectively that where there are supposedly noble ideals but also money involved go the money every time. In other words I smelt an odour that perhaps was not eau de cologne.

On April 4, the much respected Washington Post ran a rather lengthy story, with pictures no less, claiming also that the arrests were beat ups and that these were fine, "brave" upstanding journalists championing freedom of the press who were being cut down by a wicked regime. Again a very spirited article.

The Post’s article reports friends and colleagues of the three as saying that they:

have interpreted the prosecution of Cheng, Yu and Li as part of a determined effort by officials in the Guangdong provincial government or the Guangzhou city government to rein in the Southern Metropolis News and its in-your-face reporting.

Like Reporters without Frontiers, the Post has cited two incidents that were believed to have caused the arrests and quoted a Chinese "crusading journalist" as saying

...local authorities were particularly irritated by a Southern Metropolis News report in late December (2003 Ed.) that revealed the discovery in Guangzhou of another case of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The SARS case, which the provincial government had not announced despite pledges of openness in Beijing, was the first since the epidemic subsided last July.

In addition, Wang (the crusading journalist Ed.) and others recalled, municipal authorities already had been embarrassed by a revelation in the Southern Metropolitan News in March 2003 that an out-of-town student, Sun Zhigang, was beaten to death while in police custody


So there we have it. Two papers, one highly respected and one oft cited reporting a story of three crusading journalists, brave enough to say what others would not, arrested, (and in two cases, sentenced ) by authorities who wanted to silence them and also send a strong message to any others foolish enough to attempt to follow their “heroic” example.

Some Information Not Given...


Now this is what a .15 second search on Google for the search term” guangzhou daily” reveals (Google's search time statistic displayed on each search result page)

The Guangzhou Daily Group is a large and apparently aggressive Communist Party owned newspaper chain with diversified interests. It runs 16 mastheads and with revenue from advertising of $US 188m controls 10% of the national print advertising revenue in China.

According to a Business Week Online article China's venerable newspaper faces stiff new competition dated 30/12/02, in October 2002 a general manager of the group's property management division was convicted for taking bribes over some facilities construction. This followed the detention and release of two employees in early 2002 on a "broader enquiry on corruption"

So wide was this "broader enquiry" that the Hong Kong based Swires Group put in limbo a 4 billion Yuan development project that the Guangzhou Daily group had committed to provide significant capital to. This project was only reported back on track in the last week when the Swires Group decided to go it alone in the development.

Those "two employees" mentioned coincidently are the two who have recently been sentenced.

So we have a situation were a large business was embroiled in some major corruption scandal in 2002 one year before the advent of SARS and the death of the Chinese student. As well, two employees who were under suspicion then, now feature in the Washington Post and Reporters San Frontiers articles as being victimised for their outspokenness in 2003. This reported “victimisation” is despite the fact that not only were they previously under suspicion but also, according to the Reporters Without Frontiers article, had admitted in court that the facts of the state brought case were correct.

One would have to think that the Guangzhou Daily organisation was riddled with corruption in 2002 if not before for no-one backs out of a 4 Billion yuan project because one or two lowly people took some backhanders.

In the case of the recently arrested journalist one must presume innocence until proven otherwise but one would have to think, given the background, that the Chinese Government must have a least a reasonably strong prima facie case against him. As such respected news journals perhaps should not get up on a high horse so quickly claiming persecution, intimidation, false detention and imprisonment as they have done in these two articles.

We look to journalists for objective and factual reporting so that the average person can form opinions. Examples of "professional" journalism that we are talking about here can only be viewed as blind “China Bashing”. It is wrong from two perspectives firstly, it wrongly gives a false impression and secondly can only diminish the positive effect of reporting on real issues.

It is no more honest or on any higher moral ground than the propaganda that we blame the Chinese so often for. As in this case of the Chinese’fight against corruption we damn them if they do and damn them if they don’t.


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