Xinhua Reports Authorities in Shanxi Province Unlawfully Detained Reporter

March 17, 2005

On March 15, the official news agency Xinhua reported how the Chinese government's policy of restricting politically sensitive information harms not only foreign media, but also China's domestic news reporters. A Xinhua report described how public security authorities in Qingxu county, Shanxi province, "interfered with the regular interviews of a Xinhua reporter" and "illegally restricted his personal freedom."

The CECC noted in its 2004 Annual Report that government officials in Dingnan county, Jiangxi province, removed pages of the People's Daily before it was distributed in August 2003. The excised pages included a report about corruption in the county government. In September 2003, the China Youth Daily, the People's Daily, and Xinhua published a series of reports decrying the Dingnan censorship, which they deemed "appalling."

See below for excerpts and analysis.



The Xinhua article described county authorities' treatment of the reporter as follows:

After the reporter arrived at Daijiabao village, he began conducting interviews in a villager's residence. Qingzu public security law enforcement head Ren Dahai drove up in a police car with four or five police officers and followed him to the residence. Ren Dahai and the others forced open the villager's front door, rushed into the living room, and asked the reporter to once again produce his journalist credentials. The reporter showed his journalist credentials to them once again, and explained his purpose for being there. Without producing his police identification, Ren Dahai berated the reporter in a stern voice: "You all must follow me to the local police stations for formal questioning and investigation." The reporter tried to reason with him, and asked Ren Dahai and the other to explain why it was necessary to do this, and Ren Dahai said: "Don't worry about why. Just do as we say." After the reporter produced his Xinhua journalist credentials, and explained that the Xinhua Publishing House has the right to conduct interviews, and went on to say that he could return with the report to the Taiyuan municipal public security office or the provincial public security office. Ren Dahai refused, and stated that if he did not come with the police, they would resort to the use of force.

The Xinhua report makes no mention of the fact that the incident represents a violation of the reporter's constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of association. This omission is no doubt deliberate: the the article comes two weeks after new regulations on reporter credentials came into effect, and is likely intended, not as a defense of freedom of the press, but rather as a warning to lower-level government officials that they must respect those credentials. The article does, however, indirectly illustrate several of the ways China's central government suppresses freedom of the expression:

  • The article makes it clear that the police should not have attempted to interfere with the reporter's interview once he displayed his credentials. Had the reporter been unable to produce a government-issued journalist credential card, then the police would have been within their rights to detain him, at least until they could confirm that the government had "licensed" him to conduct interviews.
  • Xinhua is a government agency, under the direct authority of the State Council, and Xinhua reporters are de facto government employees. If a county police officer is willing to treat someone who is essentially an agent of the central government in the manner described in the article, it is not surprising that China is currently considered one of the world's leading jailer of journalists. It is also not difficult to imagine the barriers non-Xinhua reporters throughout China face at every level of government.
  • The reporter claimed that "Xinhua" has the right to conduct interviews. In other words, freedom of the press is not a right held by every citizen. Rather it is a privilege exercised by credentialed representatives of government-licensed publishers.
  • The article indicates that Chinese authorities view journalists as an arm of the Communist Party and the government. The article does not portray the incident as an example of censorship or a violation of freedom of the press. Instead, it presents the story as an example of a local official interfering with a "Party journalist" and "central government reporter" in the exercise of his duties.

The attitude of the the county police official Ren Dahai towards the Xinhua journalist mirrors the view of his superiors in Beijing to the media in general: it is a threat that must be restrained. Whereas Ren used force to detain a single journalist, China's central government leadership uses strict laws and regulations to restrain all of China's media. From the perspective of the Communist Party and the central government, Ren's offense lay not in violating a reporter's constitutional rights, but in refusing to recognize the authority of Beijing.