Media regulation

The cardboard bunman's in jail - so what?

JFM070815baozi.jpg
Title screen for Transparency's report on cardboard baozi, BTV-7.
Zi Beijia, the mastermind behind the fabricated investigation into cardboard baozi that aired on Beijing TV, has been fined 1000 yuan and sentenced to one year in prison for causing harm to the reputation of an industry or product. A victory for professional ethics in journalism and a blow to the phenomenon of soft, "compensated news" that's fairly widespread in the Chinese media these days, say some. Other observers aren't so sure.

Here are some reactions (note: something in the extended entry is tripping keyword filters. This post is available as image files: part 1, part 2):

Writing in the Procuratorial Daily, Wang Zhiguo applauds the judgment and wonders whether other journalists will heed the warning to stay true to professional discipline:

What I am concerned with is whether the prison term of the architect of the "cardboard baozi" fake news carries any warning for the press.

Truth is the lifeblood of the news; false reports are the enemy of journalism work. For quite some time, the press has had an "industry regulation": news reports must uphold the principles of accuracy, thoroughness, objectivity, and fairness to insure that sources of news are trustworthy and that the contents of the news are without error. If anyone violates these "regulations," to sensationalize negative reporting, or even manufacture false news, then they will be criticized by the rest of the press and condemned by public opinion.

However, "upholding the principle of truth in news and resisting fake news," under most circumstances, is only perceived as a matter of individual professional ethics in the sector, or a type of discipline; it is rarely considered from the standpoint of the law. Even when legal proceedings commence in a case of fake news, they are mostly civil cases dealing with invasion of privacy or reputation. Rarely are media professionals pursued with criminal charges for fabricating fake news. But the judgment in this "cardboard baozi" fake news case is a classic warning to media practitioners: those who fake the news are not immune from criminal conviction and sentencing; so long as the threat to society is sufficiently large, the scenario is sufficiently serious, and the law determines that sentencing and punishment are appropriate, it becomes a crime, and you will face sentencing and punishment.

After the judgment in this typical case, I imagine that there will certainly be other cases of fake news that will enter the criminal justice process. This time it was because Zi Beijia fabricated and disseminated false facts, harming the reputation of a product in a specific food industry - the situation was serious and it amounted to the crime of harming the reputation of a commercial product. Then, if a journalist intentionally fabricates facts and manufactures false information to slander someone, if the situation is serious, then it will amount to the crime of libel and will deserve punishment.

Over the last few years there have been quite a number of cases of fake news in the press. This not only disrupts the normal order of society, it also harms the overall image of the journalist corps, the authority and credibility of the media, and the image of the party and the government. If actions that violate the party's journalistic discipline and the ethics of the journalistic profession and that violate the laws and regulations of the country are not handled strictly, our news corps will not be purified, and if they are not sternly punished then the people's anger will not be pacified. So one could say that the judgment in the Zi Beijia case came at just the right time.

In the courtroom, Zi Beijia used his own painful lesson to admonish the larger group of media workers to take warning - to uphold journalism's professional ethics and not to follow in his footsteps.

Absorb the deep lesson of Zi Beijia - let us strive to be ethical journalists who see accuracy as the lifeblood of news, and who respect discipline and uphold the law!

Representing dissenting voices, Kang Jin writes in the Southern Metropolis Daily that the charges were shoehorned to pin something on Zi, and the judgment that resulted is a sham:

After the fraudster Zi Beijia was detained, everyone debated what sort of crime the judiciary would use to go after Zi. There were those who pushed for Zi to be found guilty of the crime of fabrication and intentional transmission of false and terrifying information, and there were others who thought it would be better if he were pursued on the crime of endanger public safety through dangerous practices, or on the crime of slander.

Actually, none of these three charges is correct, but they are at least more reasonable than the current crime of harming the reputation of a commercial product. For the "cardboard baozi" affair harmed the reputation of baozi, but baozi are merely one type of ordinary food. If you say that someone causes harm to commercial prestige or reputation, then there should be a particular victim. But this affair was not targeted at any particular baozi restaurant, and at present there are no baozi restaurants who have sued Zi Beijia.

As a public prosecution, any of the above three crimes could have started the judicial process, but without a specific victim, the initial decision handing down a verdict that Zi harmed the reputation of a commercial product is more like a trial by default. If, for example, we reexamine it under the principle that "what is not spelled out in the law is not a crime," then this verdict cannot withstand the test of history.

Because there is no Press Law, when Zi Beijia was engaged in fakery, he did not know whether he was committing a crime, while in pursuing his legal responsibility, the judicial organs racked their brains to find a charge; this is not reasonable. The country's legal system should be a tool to balance social justice and should be both stable and general.

The lesson Zi Beijia leaves for society is, first, we need a Press Law, so that legal techniques may be used to standardize journalistic practices rather than describing the journalistic profession through the used of labels like "formal journalist" and "hired journalists." Second, food safety and price stability are the foundation for social harmony and prosperity, and the government has great responsibility here.

A more comprehensive reaction comes from Zan Aizong, a journalist with China Ocean News who was detained by authorities for a week last year after he made posts online that denounced the demolition of a church outside of Hangzhou. Zan posted to his blog an analysis of the cardboard baozi situation that places blame squarely on the shoulders of the government agencies involved in regulating industry & commerce and press & publications. Here are a few excerpts:

In mid-July, 2007, after the BTV cardboard baozi fake news story had come to light, I asked a reporter, Mr. Wang, who was still with CCTV at the time, "do you know Zi Beijia, the former CCTV reporter?" The answer was no. This Mr. Wang was just like Zi Beijia, who had worked at CCTV last year: they were both "migrant journalists" at CCTV. They were not formally authorized by that station, nor did they have the journalist certificate, over which GAPP has a monopoly. According to what Mr. Wang told me, the reporters at the station would sometimes use the "meal card" for the CCTV cafeteria to prove that they were CCTV reporters - reportedly, over 90% of front-line CCTV repoters do not have GAPP-issued journalist certificates. According to regulations set out by GAPP, those reporters are all working illegally - they are "fake reporters." In the whole country there are more than 500,000 - even 800,000 news personnel, but only 180,000 have been able to obtain journalist certificates from GAPP. According to this data, China is the world's largest producer of "fake reporters."

BTV reporter Zi Beijia, who made the cardboard baozi, was one of those journalist certificate-less "fake reporters." I tried to look up documentation in the BTV materials on the GAPP website and its MediaInChina website that Zi Beijia had obtained a journalist certificate, but the material "could not be found." It is obvious that the MediaInChina website, which should be providing these materials, is irresponsible and seriously failing its duties - it never made those materials public at all. Similarly, the material the website had on journalists who were not with TV stations were rife with errors and mismatched names. Notices about cancellation and changes to journalist certificates had not been updated since April, 2007. And these things occurred frequently after GAPP head Long Xinmin was replaced by Liu Binjie.

Since Liu Binjie took over the reins at GAPP, he has exercised supreme authority, but he has not managed journalist certificates well, leading to the death by beating of certificate-less China Trade News reporter Lan Chengchang. Later, strikes at "fake reporters" and "paid news" were not effective, leading to the fake news about the cardboard baozi fabricated by "fake reporter" Zi Beijia. And it was the renowned BTV that brought forth this fake news that harmed the overall image of press and publications, turning into a scandal that could not be covered up, and giving Liu Binjie's GAPP no place to hide. Why hasn't the GAPP head taken responsibility and quit? How long will he wait?

Zan goes on to discuss Zi Beijia's situation and the various scenarios that legal experts had batted around before the trial, concluding that, though he faked his story and should face consequences, his actions weren't criminal. He feels that Zi's harsh punishment was a result of a legal question that had become politicized (as he discussed in an earlier blog post).

He then goes on to discuss why the Beijing Food Safety Office (under the BAIC) shares some of the blame for the scandal through its financial support of various consumer safety programs:

To use the words of an employee of [BAIC], the TV program is meant to "shut the people up," to let the general public see frequent TV broadcasts of the BAIC inspecting and exposing poor quality food products and commercial goods, thus leading them to trust that the organization is responsible enough to set their minds at ease.

But the facts are that fake alcohol and fake food are no less common in Beijing than in other cities. The water-pumped pork that the Beijing Times revealed was on the Beijing market was "negative news" under the jurisdiction of the BAIC. The prevalence of water-pumped pork is obviously a failure of the BAIC. But why did Beijing's papers, like Beijing Evening News, Beijing Youth Daily, and Beijing Morning Post not report on this? Because they are within the purview of the Beijing Publicity Department, and BAIC frequently provides "compensated promotional pages" to news agencies. Obedient news agencies who also reap benefits cannot reveal the truth to the people and uphold justice. But Beijing Times is under the central-government-level People's Daily, and the Beijing Publicity Department cannot govern it. So there is some space for public opinion to supervise the BAIC. Ultimately this let to hostility between the two units; BAIC had the power to check illegal ads in the Beijing Times, but the Beijing Times continued to use public opinion to supervise slip-ups and criminal acts by BAIC departments, it just wasn't as quick on the draw. There were people in Beijing who made complaints that BAIC's advertising management office approved tobacco ads that obviously violated the Advertising Law, and there were other complaints made that BAIC's trademark advertising department accepted a bribe for outdoor advertising worth 2 million from a branch of ICBC working through an ad company. Most conspicuous was when the BAIC building put up a cigarette ad - flagrantly violating the law, and basically extending a handle to anyone who wanted to catch them. Sometimes the Food Safety Office would roll over for the media; otherwise the media would expose them day after day - truly the thing that government departments fear the most. So that the government would not be caught in the stare of public opinion, it thought nothing of spending huge sums to buy "news" to improve its image. This is another form of "fake news," just one that is a bit more intelligent.

When BAIC was rolling over for the media, it came to understand the power of public opinion. So it bought a large amount of publicity in major media like People's Daily and Beijing Youth Daily; in BTV-7's "Transparency" program alone it paid 800,000 yuan per year. In the words of industry insiders, this is classic "compensated news." BAIC paid to buy news that was in its interest, and even news that was not real. But after the Zi Beijia affair, BAIC took the initiative and recommended that Beijing PSB break the case and arrest the culprit as fast as possible - BAIC was worried that it would be caught in the conflagration and so worked to divest itself of responsibility. Zi was ultimately sacrificed, and BTV also had problems because of its related responsibility; it could not push all of the responsibility off onto Zi. At this point, BAIC had the good fortune to be able to cover the truth about itself.

Second, the 800,000 yuan in financial support that BAIC gave to Transparency was not for fair reports of objective facts; rather it was to be a mouthpiece for the Administration, and to turn the people's gaze away from being overly concerned with food safety. It had obvious problems with its starting point, it was abysmally low quality, and it destroyed the image of the government. For this reason, when judging the case of Zi Beijia, the Beijing judicial departments ought to have fully considered the legal responsibility that BAIC had in "financially supporting Transparency to mislead the public." BAIC head Zhang Zhikuan ought to have shared legal responsibility with Zi Beijia. The program has been halted, but people who frequently watched the show say that Transparency usually reported on fakery by small shops and vendors; at the close of every program would be BAIC's investigation or authoritative statement, implying that BAIC was carrying out its duties and responsibilities to the full. In actuality, this misled the audience, for major reports like the Beijing Times exposé about water-pumped pork on the Beijing Market were absent from Transparency - it did not dare concern itself with them. One insider with the BAIC apparatus admitted that BAIC had no push to action whatsoever. He gave an example: in March, 2007, during the "two congresses" in Beijing, when city mayor Wang Qishan was talking to NPC delegates, he criticized the "opulent real estate ads" as being too numerous and widespread. BAIC immediately handled things according to the mayor's implication, but actually those advertisements had been authorized by BAIC agencies, and BAIC profited from them. There was considerable criticism from public opinion that the Administration was just doing face-work: if the mayor had not criticized the signs, they would not have voluntarily investigated them - they were simply putting on a show for the mayor. Like Transparency's deception of the people to "shut the public up," pulling the "opulent advertising" was deceiving the mayor to "shut the mayor up." So people rudely said that "BAIC cheats and swindles." The BAIC-supported Transparency not only harmed Zi Beijia himself, but it caused great harm to the reputation of BTV; the Olympics broadcasts the station was to air in 2008 may be adversely affected. This all is a result of them shooting themselves in the foot.

Zan discusses how Zi's lack of professional ethics and greed drove him to fake his news story for the 5000 yuan payout it would bring him, and how his relatively long-term relationship with BTV brought him the trust that was required to pull off the stunt. He concludes with a question: why did the investigation stop with Zi Beijia?

Looking at the unnatural actions of BTV and connected government departments, we can see that the "cardboard baozi" affair has obviously been politicized, because after the program was officially determined to be fake news, the homepage of Transparency was shuttered and many videos, photos, and documents related to the Transparency program were deleted from major mainland news sites. If there were no dirty tricks, if things had not been politicized, then why delete the primary record? As far as I know, BTV Transparency's programs on poor quality food included reports on fake lamb kabobs, poor quality glutinous rice balls, and fake vinegar, all of which were reported by that same Zi Beijia. Here is a partial list: (1) Transparency investigates fake glutinous rice balls; (2) The secret of mutton; (3) "Drawn out" toxic duck; (4) "Flash" frozen dumplings; (5) Fattened crayfish; (6) The secret preparation for fake lamb kabobs; (6) True records of fake Dezhou chicken; (7) Fake blood sausage; (8) Spoilt fruit mooncakes; (9) Lethal toxic cleanser; (10) Follow-up to questionable chitterlings; (11) Caustic soda bread; (12) Addictive "spicy temptation"; (13) The legendary man-made egg; (14) The astonishing secret of nano-health products; (15) Mysterious fake food; (16) Cardboard baozi.

From just the above sixteen programs, at a fee of 5000 yuan per, Zi Beijia took 80,000 yuan out of the 800,000 yuan provided by BAIC. Which of these programs were faked? At present, no agency is investigating, but one thing is certain: BAIC used these programs to prove how fervent it was in its work, how it inspected and handled things, but after understanding the truth, you know that BTV and BAIC joined up to hoodwink the public. Kept in the dark, how would the common people know the truth? Fake baozi is hardship for the people. The same goes for fake news.

Finally, Zi still hasn't said whether he will appeal; the migrant workers he hired to make the cardboard-filled buns have announced that they will sue for defamation of character. Xinhua reports that their target is the TV station, since they've decided that Zi has no money.

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