Chinese Media, Scholars Criticize Lack of Legal Protections for Journalists

March 1, 2006

The absence of legal protections for the press has resulted in journalists meeting with "crude interference" when attempting to gather and report news, according to an article (in Chinese) published in the February edition of the Journalist Monthly, a joint publication of the Shanghai Communist Party Central Committee and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The article asserts:

The absence of legal protections for the press has resulted in journalists meeting with "crude interference" when attempting to gather and report news, according to an article (in Chinese) published in the February edition of the Journalist Monthly, a joint publication of the Shanghai Communist Party Central Committee and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The article asserts:

Whether it is the Constitution's articles, basic law articles, specialized laws, or judicial interpretations, they all include certain restrictive articles which are sufficient to regulate any illegal tendencies that may occur in the course of news dissemination activities. Given the safeguards of these laws and regulations, it is unnecessary for anyone to be concerned that "once you talk about freedom people will forget about all restraints," or "once you talk about rights it will weaken all kinds of obligations." But regulations that empower news [gathering and reporting] activities are extremely incomplete, and as stated above, some rights have not yet been given legal status, and the right to gather news and report news is only a customary right, and has not become a legally recognized right.

The article echoes statements that Guo Zhenzhi, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication, made to a financial and judiciary forum on January 13. Professor Guo said that some Chinese authorities view "press freedom" as something that will lead to chaos, and even more view the purpose of a Press Law as a way to restrict rather than enable the press, according to a February 13 Ta Kung Pao report (in Chinese). According to Guo, Chinese authorities began drafting a Press Law in the mid-1980s, with one drafting committee established in Shanghai and two in Beijing, but officials are reluctant to introduce a draft because they realize they will be laughed at if the Press Law is seen as a vehicle for controlling the press.

Guo suggested that the basic legislative principle of any new "Press Law" in China should be an emphasis on the "delegation of powers" rather than on "control." Guo also said that the enactment date of a Press Law depends on the progress of political reform and democratization, and stressed that protection of civil rights, not citizens' obligations, should be the priority.

The Journalist Monthly article also called into question the constitutionality and legality of current regulations governing the news media. It noted that the Chinese Constitution stipulates that citizens enjoy the rights to freedom of speech (Article 35) and to criticize and make suggestions to national agencies and state employees (Article 41). Furthermore, Article 3 of the Constitution's General Principles stipulates that the people have the right to supervise the government. The article said that the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television regulate China's news media through "administrative rules they have formulated themselves," and raises the following issues:

  • Freedom of speech is a political right of China's citizens, and under Article 8 of China's Legislation Law, only the National People's Congress Standing Committee may regulate matters limiting political rights. According to the article, "because China has not established a constitutional review mechanism, there is a lack of systemic clarity in the regulation of infringements on citizen's political rights."
  • Article 71 of China's Legislation Law stipulates that "A matter on which an administrative rule is enacted shall be a matter which is within the scope of implementing national law, administrative regulations, and decisions or orders issued by the State Council." According to the article, where national law has not produced a rule on an issue (as is the case with press regulation in China), it raises doubts as to the legality of agency rules that attempt to impose sanctions on press related activities.
  • Regulatory agencies have established rules regarding administrative punishments and administrative licensing, but have not provided any means for redress or relief for those who object to an administrative decision. According to the article, this absence of means for redress is the reason that no cases have been filed by "people suing the government" in the media control sphere. Moreover, the article said that, even if someone wished to file such a law suit, there is no law on which such a suit could be based.

Activist Li Jian and 200 others registered similar complaints in an opinion issued on December 7, 2005, on the Citizens' Rights Protection Net calling on the State Council and National People's Congress Standing Committee to review the constitutionality and legality of the Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services.

In addition to pointing out the excessive amount of restrictive legislation, the lack of legal protection for freedom of the press in China, and the absence of a constitutional or legal basis for China's current press regulatory system, the article also noted an aspect of China's current press regulation system that has no legal basis. In what apparently is a reference to the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department, the author wrote that much of China's press regulation is based on written and unwritten "propaganda regulations," and that these extra-legal policies "determine what news the media accepts or rejects and their value judgments regarding news," and that "often they are more restraining of press activities than laws."

The Journalist Monthly has pointed in previous articles out how the government interferes with journalists' attempts to gather and report news. The October 2005 edition of Journalist Monthly published an article by Professor Zheng Baowei that says that Communist Party and government control over, and censorship of, China's news media prevents journalists from writing and publishing critical investigative reports.

China's state run news media has published several articles complaining about provincial and local authorities censoring central government news reports and obstructing central government journalists. Although this open discussion of government restrictions on journalism by Chinese scholars is an encouraging development, the increasing openness of complaints on press restrictions is, at least in part, an expression of a Party and government desire to ensure that the press continues to be an effective instrument for information gathering and propaganda dissemination. Unless the government lifts current restrictions on news reporting, the Party will be the primary beneficiary of any increase in the ability of journalists to enforce their right to gather and report news, since only government licensed journalists will be allowed to enforce these rights. Any such private enforcement of rights by journalists would enable Party officials to better use journalists to monitor provincial and local governments.

For additional information on how the Chinese government uses news reports to manipulate public opinion, see the CECC 2005 Annual Report -- Freedom of Expression -- Government and Party Use of the Media to Control Public Opinion.