Media regulation

Emergency reports and rumors

Brick kilns in Shanxi, reported by the media but covered up by the local authorities.
A new draft of proposed legislation on how to handle emergency situations was released earlier this week to widespread acclaim. Of particular interest to the Chinese media was the deletion of two provisions: one that stipulated fines of 50,000 to 100,000 yuan for media organizations that made unauthorized reports on emergency situations in violation of rules, and a second that ordered local governments to regulate the reports that the media were required to make.

Commentaries in Southern Metropolis Daily, The Beijing News, and Beijing Youth Daily (translated at CMP) all welcomed the deletions. China Daily, too, hailed the new draft.

But in an op-ed in today's Southern Weekly, Guo Guangdong argues that removing the fines was a bad move:

It's not the tens of thousands in fines that the media fears

by Guo Guangdong / SW

The past few days, the media has been very grateful to the NPC standing committee, hailing the second revision of the emergency response law, which removed the ban on the media "violating regulations to make unauthorized reports" about emergency situations. Violators could be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan by the local government under the punishment provision. However, from another perspective, this provision did not need to be deleted. It would be much more advantageous to leave it in.

I say this for the following reasons:

First, it's predictable business, and quite economical. If we treat a newspaper or a magazine agency as a business, then we can assess the media's ratio of investment to return. The original draft stipulated fines from 50,000 to 100,000 yuan; according to this rate, if the media does not listen to officials' directions, but instead made "unauthorized" reports on the truth of an emergency situation, it will definitely multiply its profit. Respect from its peers and popular support from its readers are intangible benefits; the tangible benefits would be steady increases to circulation numbers and a continuous stream of advertisers. And a fine of 50,000 yuan - or at the most 100,000 yuan - could basically be handled by a half-page color advertisement. The current economic strength of the majority of Chinese media makes this fine just a drop in the bucket. Working as usual with a consideration of costs, this naturally would amount to virtually endowing the media with substantial freedom to report on emergency situations - they'd be forking over money for the right to report.

Second, this fine is negotiable. When the government fines the media, it is an administrative fine. If the media does not submit, then it can appeal to the next administrative level requesting the government to reconsider. If it still does not submit, then it can bring suit in the People's Court. This administrative case will attract the attention of other eyes in the media who will swarm to report it. All sides will be under pressure, and perhaps things will just drag on without resolution. So the benefit realized from the media's "unauthorized report" on an emergency situation will be magnified, at essentially no cost.

Thinking carefully in this way, we can see that it's not the tens of thousands in fines that the news media is afraid of. Any punishment clearly stipulated in the law can be anticipated and taken into account, and there are always legal channels for redress. What truly has the media afraid are those unfathomable, abstruse, rule-of-man-style punishments, such as firing reporters, dismissing editors, shaking up management, and closing publications. Or like the Pengshui poetry case, in which someone was deprived of personal liberty in the guise of the rule of law. So this would be nothing new: locally, an emergency situation is covered up, and it's always the central-level media and outside media who report it. The local media can at best publish a few releases written up and issued by the local government.

It is because of this that I hope the draft law will retain the punishment provision. But I also hope that it can go one step further - that is, make a clear statement: apart from fines from the People's Government, no organization may take any punitive actions toward media entities that make unauthorized reports. The law on emergency response is promulgated by the NPC Standing Committee, so it is highly effective, and government agencies will naturally carry it out. The constitution stipulates that the Party must act within the scope of the Constitution and the law, so naturally, party organizations everywhere will also respect this law.

However, I must admit that this "legislative recommendation" is just wishful thinking. In the legislative history of New China, there is no precedent for the return of deleted statutes. My personal impression is that this is a first - the provision for fines in the draft of the emergency response law is an NPC law that makes the media the object of legislation. Unfortunately, this first flickered out of existence too quickly.

The fact that there has been no previous legislation pointed at the media, and why it has now been deleted amid a continued storm, perhaps demonstrates the difficulty and sensitivity of "controlling" the media. The media looks like a business, but it is not a typical business. It is undeniable that there have been times when the media has made false reports, but in most circumstances, the media is associated with the public's right to know, the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression, and the universal values of democracy, rule of law, equality, and justice. Fundamental rights like the freedom of expression are laid out in the Constitution, and specific laws may only protect and expand on constitutional rights; otherwise they are unconstitutional. So "journalism legislation is non-trivial" - a bit of carelessness in legislation aimed at the media will throw you into an awkward dilemma, as legislators are certainly aware.

* * *

Other responses discussed the nature of false reporting itself, asking whether people should be punished for passing on rumors. Here's an excerpt from a blog post by Rose Luqiu, translated by ESWN:

It is a minimum professional and ethical requirement for the media not to report hearsay. By contrast, exchanging rumors and communicating them to others is part of the daily lives of individuals. There is an ancient Chinese saying: Rumors stop with the wise people. The government only needs to raise the quality of the people and improve the ability of people to judge the accuracy of information and to tell right or wrong. When there are many wise people, this whole problem can be solved at the root source, right?

Lian Yue had similar observations a few weeks ago:

So-called "rumor" is one way in which information is circulated. Impairment may be one element of this, as when some illiterate young person misunderstands and passes on a mistake, but more often, it is because information is not free. Rumors always erupt when news is dealt out stingily; in communications, this is information retaliation. So in rumors, oppressors are always dozens of times more atrocious. In the words of the oppressors' press officers, they always appear benevolent, so rumors work to neutralize their image and give the public an answer that is closer to the truth.

However, the people who believe this description are pretty much classicists. Modern oppressors will become even more ruthless to retaliate against rumors that destroy their image, and they will be dozens of times more atrocious than they appear in the rumors. People who believe and spread the rumors think that they are accomplishing "information retaliation," but when they finally see the truth, they realize that their imagination was insufficient. Evils and atrocities are unlimited in scope; after violence is greater violence, and after evil, greater evil.

To some degree, Lan Qinghua and Li Runshan are typical of the struggle with "rumor" in the era of new technology. Mobile phone SMS and complaints cannot be 100% in accordance with the facts. It's absurd to have an iron-clad rule for the public's speech when judges have a hard time themselves, but because of this, any critic could easily be slapped with the label "rumor-monger," and the modern "literary inquisition" of Lan Qinghua and Li Runshan was so easily accomplished. Those two men, an insult to modern civilization, still exercise their power to this day - many "rumor-mongers" would have had a hard time imagining such a surreal outcome.

Interestingly, other changes were unsuccessfully proposed by various government ministries, as Southern Weekly revealed today:

  • Ministry of National Security: Change "Large-scale terrorist attacks" to "terrorist attacks";
  • PLA General Armament Department: Give clear provisions for compensation for mobilizing army equipment and resources;
  • National Bureau of Petitions: Clearly state that mass incidents erupting from the petition issue are within the scope of incidents affecting social security;
  • Environmental Protection Agency: "Environmental incidents" should be an independent type of emergency situation;
  • State Seismological Bureau: Local government should notify relevant government departments in addition to making a report to their higher-ups;
  • Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: Remove the provision punishing the media for unauthorized reports. It is detrimental to the government's image, and "the country currently has media management regulations more serious and comprehensive than those in the draft law, and there are more effective forms of punishment than fines";
  • Supreme People's Court: The draft is vague about what constitutes "violating the rules," and this "could be used as an excuse by local governments to restrict the media in their normal course of reporting on emergency situations. It is detrimental to the media's supervision by public opinion of false and concealed reports";
  • CPC Propaganda Department: In addition to stipulating punishment by the local People's Governments, government departments in charge of industry should be able to impose punishments on media organizations as well;
  • SARFT: "Violating the rules" is too vague and ought to be clarified;
  • Beijing Municipal Government: Media interviews ought to be supervised according to the law, and manuscripts should be carefully vetted." Also, "information detrimental to the handling of the emergency should not be reported." Thinking about SARS, Beijing also recommended adding that military hospitals and clinics should be required to report public health incidents to the local government;
  • Shangdong, Chongqing, Wuhan, Dalian: Using fines as punishment is inappropriate and obstructs the media's supervisory role.
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Comments on Emergency reports and rumors

It seems to be an aftermath of Hu's talk at the party school early this week, and a move to strengthen the party/govt's governance and accountability at the regional level.
Hu's talk has been elaborated the third day via People's Daily's editorial where people's participation in societal affairs has been emphasized. Whether or not this 'central censensus' could be honoured and implemented at the ground level has yet to be seen.
Local media's vitality, activated by professional and/or commercial initiatives, will probably bring more argumentive stories to the public in the time to come.

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