Despite its 2006 threat to impose fines for unauthorized reporting, China’s government is urging the media to publicize pollution problems as part of its anti-pollution and energy-saving campaigns.
Last month, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), called on China’s official media to provide “in-depth reports” on problems of public concern, including pollution and energy waste.
Wu’s appeal came in preparation for the government’s annual “All-China Environmental Protection Century Tour,” the official Xinhua news agency reported April 28. The theme for this year’s round of official visits to the provinces is the reduction of energy consumption and pollution, Xinhua said.
But the government’s use of the media to highlight problems in the provinces may also raise questions about China’s press policies.
Last June, the NPC’s Standing Committee stirred controversy by introducing a draft press law that threatened heavy fines for the unauthorized reporting of “sudden events,” such as outbreaks of epidemics or pollution accidents.
Government officials have defended the penalties of up to 100,000 yuan (U.S. $12,977), saying they are meant only to force authorities to release information on a timely basis.
It’s kind of like a catch-up game. The media or some journalists push the envelope, and the government tries to put in a restriction and the journalists will do something else.
In interviews with Radio Free Asia, environmental experts and journalists said they are heartened by China’s efforts to promote provincial compliance, though China’s press policy still gets mixed marks.
Jennifer Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, called the role of China’s press in the environmental tour an example of government-managed news.
“The central government doesn’t have the power to really control local government in terms of energy efficiency and [the] environmental degradation that they’re creating from their power plants, et cetera. So the media is in effect being used as a tool, as a watchdog, as a check on local governments,” Turner said.
Turner added, though, that because of government support, local journalists may now also gain more freedom to report on violations.
“I think there will be a ripple effect, that after the tour there’s going to be more reporting, pushing the envelope even at the local level.”
Environmental journalism is a “growing area of reporting,” said Turner. “So it’s interesting that the government is leading this. But I think there’s been a lot of innovation, and journalists have been developing their own skills in this area because it’s an area where they’re given freedom.”
Ray Cheung, a former correspondent for the South China Morning Post , said the focus now should be on results.
“The journalist’s report is issued, but what happens? Do the grievances get solved? The issues, the pollution, the people that are harmed: Do they get redress?”
Cheung said that China’s central government may be urging state media to report on local pollution problems because “[the government has] so little control and, actually, so little knowledge of the things that are going on at the local level.”
Threats of fines under China’s new press law are unlikely to block pollution reporting for very long, Cheung said. “The Chinese media are very vibrant, and there are journalists everywhere, and the stories will come out some way or another.”
“It’s kind of like a catch-up game. The media or some journalists push the envelope, and the government tries to put in a restriction and the journalists will do something else. So you’re going to see a lot of that for a very long time.”
But at the local level, press organizations may be owned or controlled by government or industrial interests that have a stake in continuing pollution, Cheung said. These restrictions and local interests have led some local papers to report on pollution problems far from home.
“You have the northern newspapers covering the corruption or the problems in southern China, and then you have the southern newspapers reporting all the problems in northern China,” said Cheung.
“That’s how it kind of works.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.