Harassment of Journalists Sparks Outcry in Chinese Press

November 1, 2010

In the summer of 2010, several high-profile incidents involving the harassment of journalists for reporting on local officials and companies have highlighted both local efforts to prevent unwelcome media coverage and the Chinese media's attempts to push back by calling for greater rights for journalists. At the same time, however, the media have been careful not to challenge the central government directly. The incidents involved journalists whose critical reporting on local companies prompted police action or physical assault by thugs connected to the targeted companies. Incidents also involved local officials barring journalists from covering events, such as a plane crash, that officials regarded as potentially embarrassing. The incidents prompted editorials, op-eds, and news articles in Chinese media, many defending the journalists. It is unclear what long-term impact this recent flurry of media attention will have on press freedom in China. Communist Party control over news content and heavy government regulation illustrate the Chinese government's failure to comply with international human rights standards on free expression.

Incidents in July and August 2010 involving harassment of journalists by local police and by local companies have sparked numerous news articles, editorials, and op-eds in the Chinese media. The case that received perhaps the most media attention, the Qiu Ziming case, is discussed below. Other incidents included journalists detained and barred by local officials from covering a plane crash in Heilongjiang province (see August 29 Caixin report), investigations by local police and propaganda officials in Shandong province of journalists who prepared a story critical of a local biotech company (see August 30 China Youth Daily report, via Xinhua), and violent attacks against journalists who wrote stories critical of companies (see August 8 Financial Times report). The Financial Times article quoted a deputy editor at Caijing, a Chinese newspaper known for its investigative reporting, as saying "[t]he fact that a company can enlist state authorities to fight its private battles highlights the core problem: our police and judiciary are not independent and there is widespread collusion between officials and enterprises."

Qiu Ziming Case

In late July 2010, public security officials in Suichang county, Zhejiang province, sought to arrest Qiu Ziming, a reporter at the Economic Observer (EO). According to a July 30 EO article, Qiu authored a series of reports on the privatization of the parent company of Zhejiang Kan Specialty Material Company (ZKSMC), a company listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The reports alleged that certain individuals purchased the parent company at a steep discount and received free land in the transaction. On July 23 Qiu's name appeared on a national online list of "wanted persons," suspected by Suichang police of "damaging the commercial reputation" of ZKSMC (Article 221, Criminal Law). A representative of ZKSMC acknowledged to CCTV, China's national television station, that the company had used its connections with local police to secure Qiu's detention, according to a July 29 New York Times (NYT) article. In a July 28 statement, EO defended Qiu's reports and alleged that the company had offered bribes to "journalists and others" and threatened them during the newspaper's investigation.

Central Government Response

News of the case caused a stir on the Internet, and national-level officials intervened. The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the national regulator of China's media, ordered provincial and local officials with jurisdiction over Suichang to investigate. Their investigation concluded that the Suichang police's decision to detain Qiu "did not meet legal requirements" because it was based on insufficient evidence, according to a July 30 GAPP article and an August 2 Legal Daily article. Under orders from higher level officials, Suichang police apologized to Qiu and on July 29 revoked the detention decision. A week later, the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) announced a new policy affecting arrests in defamation cases (the Qiu case appeared to involve detention, which precedes arrest under Chinese law). The new policy stipulates that in order to arrest someone accused of defamation, authorities not only will require approval from the procuratorate at the same level (as currently required by law) but also require approval of the procuratorate at the next higher level, according to an August 7 Procuratorial Daily article. The SPP official cited in the article said that police should not treat speech criticizing individual leaders, even if extreme, as criminal defamation. Premier Wen Jiabao also appeared to address the recent cases involving journalists in an August 27 speech before the State Council. Wen said, "in accordance with the law we must protect people's rights to directly supervise the government. We must support the news media's exposure of illegal or inappropriate administrative behavior."

It is unclear what impact the cases of Qiu and others will have on the long-term development of press freedom in China. At least one commentator has said the Qiu case highlighted central-level control over local matters rather than expanding press freedom. "This was a local error corrected by officials in the central party apparatus. The incident shows, in fact, just how nimble the party can be," Russell Leigh Moses, a professor based in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in an August 1 report (subscription required). Other observers, however, said that the case could embolden China's media. The critic Li Xiang told SCMP that Chinese media could use the case to show that media can "write critical reports about public companies without being harassed by powerful governments" and "if later a more powerful institution is involved in a similar case, journalists can cite this as a precedent to defend themselves."

Chinese Media Commentary on Qiu Case

Chinese news media responded to the Qiu case by publishing editorials, op-eds, and news articles, some raising questions about the abuse of criminal defamation charges to harass journalists and advocating for more space to criticize officials and businesses. For example, Zhan Jiang, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University (Southern Weekend op-ed, July 29) noted that, with the advent of cell phones and the Internet, local officials were increasingly using the crime of defamation to punish citizens who used these technologies to criticize local interests (noting at least 20 cases from 2006 to July 2009), reversing the declining trend of criminal defamation in favor of civil lawsuits. Ge Sunchun (July 29 op-ed reprinted on the popular Web portal Sina) criticized local police in the Qiu case for hastily pursuing a criminal case against Qiu and asked why the company had not filed a civil lawsuit. "If every journalist who writes a [report exercising the media's supervisory role] is prosecuted to the point of having an order for the arrest of a criminal at large...then will journalists dare to accept the responsibility of covering and reporting the news? Of what use is the right to freedom of speech provided in [China's] Constitution?" The Oriental Morning Post ran a story on July 29 (via Sohu) that included comments from a partner at a Shanghai law firm who urged caution in using the crime of defaming commercial reputation, arguing that "so long as there is no malicious intent, even if the reporting is not entirely in line with the true situation, it shouldn't constitute [the crime of commercial defamation]." Similarly Professor Zhan argued that in the absence of malice and gross negligence, criticism of state institutions and officials should not constitute defamation even if it results in some reputational harm. Zhan said "erroneous expression is inevitable" during discussion and to punish such expression would lead to "many people unwilling to take part in debates."

Some media commentary appeared to frame the issue carefully as a problem involving local officials, avoiding direct criticism of central authorities, but also addressing more systemic problems plaguing China. For example, in an op-ed titled "Freedom of Speech Is an Essential Weapon for Curbing Abuse of Public Power" (South Wind Window, August 13) Zhang Qianfan, a Peking University law professor, noted that the Qiu case and others from recent years were all "typical examples of local governments suppressing journalists." Zhang drew a direct comparison to the United States, arguing that "freedom of speech is even more indispensable in China" since China lacks certain checks and balances found in the U.S. system and instead "relies more on top-to-bottom central control" to fight corruption. Zhang aligned the interests of the media with those of central authorities, saying that the media could help alleviate the central government's burden of monitoring local officials and prevent problems, from torture in the criminal justice system to controversial land takings, that have contributed to societal conflict in recent years. "If journalists are persecuted and free speech is stifled anywhere, then the central authorities have lost their most trustworthy 'eyes' and 'ears'...," Zhang wrote. In his Southern Weekend op-ed, Professor Zhan tied the Qiu case to his suggestion that China should follow international practice in determining when freedom of speech may be restricted, noting that China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998.

As the Commission noted in its 2010 Annual Report, Chinese media currently do not enjoy press freedoms in line with international standards due to Communist Party controls and heavy government regulation of the news industry.