Media Struggle to Expose Scandals

China's investigative reporters work in a challenging environment to get the story out.
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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—Braving tight government controls on the media, China's investigative reporters are emerging as a tough new breed of journalist. Chinese investigative journalists have helped to expose official corruption, medical scandals, and public health and safety concerns.

But while some manage to evade strict censorship and publish stories in high-profile media like Caijing magazine and China Central Television's News Probe, a large proportion of stories never see the light of day, according to industry insiders.

Investigative journalist Wang Keqin, who was the first to report on the dangers of mishandled vaccines in China's northern Shanxi province, declined to comment in person on the story because of its sensitive nature.

On his blog, however, Wang wrote that he and fellow investigative reporters are contacted by people all over China asking them to report on official corruption or grievances against the government.

"I and my colleagues would face enormous difficulty if we tried to get the voices of these ordinary people heard," he wrote.

"The difficulties are no less than those faced by those people who try to complain about the behavior of local officials [in the first place]."

Retribution feared

In spite of being well-known across China for his ground-breaking journalism, Wang finds it nearly impossible to get his lengthy investigative journalism pieces published.

A recent in-depth report on homeless people, which found that many of those sleeping rough in China's cities are migrant workers, was turned down by China's official media, which are closely controlled by the ruling Communist Party's powerful Central Propaganda Department.

Instead, another investigative reporter and former Southern Weekend journalist Zhai Minglei posted the report on his Web-based newspaper, Yibao.

And one young investigative journalist who has worked as Wang's assistant in the past says journalists like himself, Wang, and Zhai face huge problems getting interviews in the first place.

"A lot of the people we try to interview are afraid of retribution from local authorities or revenge attacks from criminal gangs," said the reporter, who declined to be named.

"Sometimes you have one or two people who are really brave, and they are prepared to stand up and speak out," he said.

"But you can't find out what's really going on if you rely on what one or two people tell you; you can't get a feel for the big picture like that. We wish that more people would stand up and speak out," he said.

He added that government officials are usually polite, especially those in the propaganda departments of regional governments, but still refuse to answer sensitive questions.

Journalists followed

"Mostly we don't approach them until the very last stages, when we have already completed most of our investigation," Wang's assistant said.

"But quite often when we go to them for their comment ... the result after a certain interview will be that the newspaper is immediately warned off, and then we are unable to continue."

Journalists can also be followed by police, officials, or "unidentified" persons, often meaning criminal gang members or anonymous thugs hired by the government as muscle.

"Sometimes we see that the police or maybe some local officials are following us. In that case we would be a bit more relaxed, because they won't do anything much," Wang's assistant said.

"[But] sometimes we run into people whose identity we don't really know, and then it gets much more worrying."

Prominent Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said China is something of a "paradise" for investigative journalists because of the large number of issues affecting public trust in the government.

But he added that reporters have to function in a very challenging environment to get the stories out.

"There isn't a single attempt to report on them that doesn't get leaned on or attacked by the local government concerned," Pu said.

"The environment for media reporting is very poor indeed."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Richard Finney.





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