Companies Target Journalists

China's private sector makes it harder for reporters to do their jobs.
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A woman looks at newspapers and magazines on one of Beijing's many newsstands, Dec. 3, 2008.
A woman looks at newspapers and magazines on one of Beijing's many newsstands, Dec. 3, 2008.
AFP/Peter Parks

HONG KONG—Chinese authorities have long kept a tight rein on media that report stories of dissent or protest against government actions, but now private companies are beginning to add pressure as well, an overseas rights group and media workers said.

Earlier this week, Yuan Xinting, an editor at the Guangzhou Publishing House, was taken in for questioning by national security police on suspicion of "incitement to subversion" after he published information on the Internet about recent demonstrations in support of the Cantonese language in the city.

"I was told very soon after by the publishing company that they didn't think I was the right sort of person to work there, because I was out of line with the philosophy of the ruling party," Yuan said.

Yuan's story is a common one among among media professionals who cross the line politically and stray into territory considered sensitive by the Communist Party.

But there is a growing tendency for Chinese journalists to be targeted also by the corporate sector, which often has close ties with local officials, and now increasingly sees the media as something to be brought into line.

Targeted for reporting

Science journalist Fang Xuanchang was named in a report published Thursday by the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which cited him as an example of journalists who had recently been attacked or threatened.

"Most of these incidents happen because one has annoyed a particular person and damaged their interests, which will likely lead to revenge," Fang said in an interview.

Fang said the first time he was threatened in the course of his reporting work was when he wrote about Wang Zhenguo, a doctor in northeastern China who was selling and marketing anti-cancer remedies.

"They sent the police to detain me," said Fang, who has written about medical charlatans, fake discoveries, and the questionable practices of several small health-sector companies.

"That was the first time I was threatened."

In a statement issued on its website, RSF called on Beijing to investigate a brutal June 24 attack on Fang, who was hospitalized after being beaten with a steel bar by two unidentified assailants.

"The police have conducted no more than desultory inquiries into what appears to have been a murder attempt," the RSF statement said.

Chinese journalists and media are increasingly finding themselves the targets of threats and censorship by private-sector companies, RSF said, citing "several cases with serious implications for press freedom."

They included the case of two journalists detained by police after they wrote about a biotech company, and a respected Beijing journalist who was physically attacked for publishing several articles about doctors and health-sector entrepreneurs.

"Many Chinese companies are nowadays using their influence over the authorities (including the police and Propaganda Department) to avoid negative coverage," the RSF report said.

"This is taking place at a time when the Chinese public is taking more interest in consumer rights and the quality of goods and services," it added, calling on the government to do more to protect journalists.

'Red envelopes'

A veteran Beijing-based media worker surnamed Liang said large companies across China would typically take two sorts of action when faced with potentially damaging reporting in the media.

"Usually it takes the form of a 'red envelope' of money, a request not to report something, or to report it differently," Liang said.

"But if the reporter insists on continuing with the report—especially if someone in central government gets wind of it, starts making noise, and gives your paper the go-ahead to report it—then the company is in a bind."

"If they won't accept it ... that's when they're likely to beat up the reporter or threaten them," Liang added.

In other cases, local enterprises, government officials, and even higher levels of government sometimes get together to control media reporting on certain companies, Liang said, citing a recent ban on the reporting of concerns over milk powder made by Synutra.

"Mostly it's the smaller level newspapers, city level or lower ... who are subject to threats. Because there's no such thing as a private newspaper," he said.

"The companies that dare to beat up journalists all have some serious pull in the government. Some are local big bosses, so when journalists come, they are seen as part of their empire," Liang said.

RSF said that not all cases in which journalists report negative news about companies end with beatings or detentions, however.

The group praised Zhejiang officials for rescinding an arrest warrant for Economic Observer reporter Qiu Ziming, who went into hiding in July after being placed on a list of most wanted criminals by the police for allegedly defaming Kan Specialties Material Corporation.

Qiu stood by his reporting, and was taken off the list in late July after a huge show of public support via his blog.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan and Ding Xiao. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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