HONG KONG—Chinese journalists and online commentators are leaping into a widening debate over media reporting, still heavily restricted by the authorities, as the country’s parliament considers legislation on coverage of disasters and emergencies.
The bill addresses how local authorities should handle fast-moving crises such as coalmine explosions, public health threats, or environmental disasters such as the contamination of the Songhua River in the northeast of the country last year.
“The restrictive regulations on the media in the draft law will not only cause more ridiculous things to happen during suddenly breaking incidents, but it also reflect the fact that some people still do not understand the role and function that the news media have in society,” wrote one commentator in the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily , translated by Hong Kong-based blogger Roland Soong.
“Everybody thinks that public opinion monitoring of the authorities is common knowledge, but within this solemn legal document, it is still being turned upside down. Using the law to affirm that government units have administrative control over news reporting is a very dangerous thing to do,” the editorial said.
If this draft law gets passed it will run counter to the whole ethic of the media, which is to report on events as soon as they occur,
China-based online writer Zan Aizong told RFA’s Mandarin service that the government would be acting against its own interests if the bill became law.
“If this draft law gets passed it will run counter to the whole ethic of the media, which is to report on events as soon as they occur,” he said.
“If this becomes law, and the government no longer gives out information on breaking news, and the media don't report it, then there will be cover-ups, which in turn will lead to chaos, as people begin to rely on rumors for their information. This will be even less desirable for the government,” Zan said.
In a panel discussion hosted by RFA, top government adviser Cui Keqing said China’s leadership was worried about the effects of inaccurate reporting of disaster stories.
“Reporters…work extremely hard when they get to the scene of a breaking news story, sometimes waiting for hours with no food or drink, or else trying to make contact with local people to find out what is really happening. This is very valuable,” he said.
“And really, government officials, who are in the thick of it, and have other priorities as events unfold, can’t do the job better than the news media. But there is a problem with the way the media report these events, and that is one of accuracy,” said Cui, who is a member of the security expert working group which advises China’s cabinet, the State Council.
Beijing-based independent writer Liu Xiaobo said the government had got it the wrong way around.
“The media are a key component of public opinion,” he said. “And while the government may have its own agenda, the media can only uphold their responsibility to provide accurate reports to the public if it is given accurate information by the government in the first place.”
“This ingrained habit of rumors among the media is in fact a product of the government’s strict control of information. The government’s first thought is always how it is going to cover up what is happening and stop information leaking out,” Liu said.
Under the current draft legislation, media outlets could be fined from 50,000 to 100,000 yuan if they break news on emergencies such as natural disasters without authorization, or publish "false" reports about disasters.
Officials in charge of handling the emergency should release information to the public and "manage" media reports in a timely manner, it says, but they are not required to make information public if it will hamper their work.
Bloggers and online commentators expressed shock and dismay at the proposed legislation.
The story has received prominent attention from top news media, including China Radio International (CRI) and top business magazine Caijing .
Liu and Zan said the current system was already highly inadequate.
“The government was forced to improve its transparency following the exposure of the SARS cover-up, and again over the Songhua River contamination disaster, in order to avoid chaos caused by rumors,” Liu told the panel, hosted by reporter Gao Shan.
“However, its level of transparency is still not enough.”
Zan said: “The current system of government spokespeople is useless. If you call the telephone number that they give out publicly for the spokesperson, no one answers. And you can never find the person who is the designated spokesperson.”
“For example, the spokesperson for the State Environmental Protection Agency is Pan Yue. If you ring that number, you’ll never get through to this person called Pan Yue,” he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Ming and Gao Shan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.