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Draft Law Tightens Media Censorship

Chinese authorities invent new ways to tighten media control.

The latest attempt of the Communist government to clamp down on the Chinese people’s right to obtain information has provoked an outcry from the Chinese media, bringing international attention to the regime’s policy of media censorship.

According to a Chinese official announcement, on June 24, 2006, the Chinese State Council submitted a draft law covering the management of emergencies to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). The draft law was submitted for review and action at the 22nd session of the 10th NPC Standing Committee.

If passed, this law would be the first time the legislature grants extensive power to governments at local levels to deal with emergencies, including severe natural disasters, catastrophic accidents, and emerging public health threats. Under the draft law, the media will face hefty fines both for the unauthorized reporting of public emergencies, and for falsely reporting news of disasters.

In the past several years, a series of emergencies has frustrated the Chinese regime and exposed both the government’s incompetence and its inability to immediately contain them. One remarkable public health threat was the SARS epidemic, originating in China in 2003. For about five months, the authorities failed to admit the emergence and spread of the deadly disease. Even worse was that the regime tried to conceal the fact that SARS patients were found in many regions, including Beijing, until Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a retired military doctor, disclosed it in Time magazine in the United States.

Last year, according to official numbers, over 6,000 coal miners died in 3,340 accidents. The central government was frustrated to learn about this and other numerous deadly accidents and vowed to crack down on illegal mine operations and to punish those who try to cover up the severity of a coal mine accident.

In November 2005, a toxic chemical spill into the Songhua River in Jilin Province became China’s largest industrial pollution accident of the year. The contaminated water threatened the environment and drinking water not only in several Chinese cities but also in neighboring Russian territory. However, local officials focused more on concealing the damage than informing the public of the coming threat. Residents in the down-stream city of Harbin did not know about the water contamination for seven days, until it became necessary to shut down the city’s water supply as an emergency measure.

The draft law is an effort to improve the regime’s image and to install a responsibility system. The draft law proposes four levels of gravity for emergency events: extremely severe, severe, major, and average. [1] The State Council or a department designated by the State Council bears the responsibility for determining the level of gravity in times of emergencies.{mospagebreak}

The draft law proposes that local officials be fined if they fail to report emergencies to their superiors, if they fail to provide emergency assistance, or if they fail to put together a proper emergency response plan.

The clause in the draft law that has aroused intense protests from the Chinese media is Article 57. Article 57 states that newspapers, magazines, news websites, and television stations will face fines ranging from US$6,250 to US$12,500 each time they publish information about a sudden event "without authorization."[2]

The proposed clause on reporting the emergency events reflects how worried the Chinese leaders are that reporting such events and the subsequent public reaction may become a threat to the ruling Communist Party. When the mishandling of a natural disaster or industry accident is widely reported, it is more often than not related to corruption inside the Communist government. It frequently leads critics to scrutinize not only the local leadership but also the system of one-party rule. The thinking is that it will be easier to silence the public media than to defend the Party each time there is a disaster.

The law would give local government officials a powerful new tool to restrict coverage of mass outbreaks of disease, riots, strikes, accidents, and other events that the authorities prefer to keep secret. Officials in charge of propaganda already exercise considerable control over the Chinese news media, but their power tends to be informal, and has not been codified into law.

The proposed law has another clause that will grant the police the authority to implement "forceful practice" in a situation where the "social order is severely threatened." This clause also reflects the Chinese leaders’ fear of public revolt.

The draft law further proposes that, in times of social unrest, law enforcement shall immediately deploy the police and adopt compulsory measures to quickly restore order.

The Chinese media responded angrily to the proposed law. The media in South China, which traditionally have a reputation for being relatively outspoken, are leading the campaign against the media-related clause. For example, Xin Kuai Bao (New Express), a commercial newspaper in Guangzhou published by Yangcheng Wan Bao (or Yangcheng Evening News) published an editorial on June 27, 2006, stating that the draft law does not consider that, because the government has a news monopoly, there is no way to verify that the information the government disseminates is the truest and most accurate. "The clause does not take into account the possibility that there are ‘man-made calamities’ as well as ‘natural disasters.’ In such cases this clause of the draft law would actually become a tool for corrupt officials who want to cover up their dirty deeds."[3]{mospagebreak}

Another editorial in Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), a prominent Chinese newspaper, states, "What this essentially means is that the control of all information is in the hands of local governments." It further stated: "We believe as a matter of course that the spirit of watchdog journalism should be upheld in this law on emergency management. In fact, this draft, in its present form, does exactly the opposite and doubtless represents a step backward." It continued, "The general public thinks that the media’s role as watchdog is just simply common sense. …Using the law to affirm governmental control over the administration of news coverage is an utterly dangerous endeavor."[4]

More criticism came from Teng Xun News, which stated that restricting media reporting of emergencies would be a regression.[5] It cited the media frenzy of "9/11" in the United States as a good example of the role that Chinese media should play.

The media reported that Yu An, a professor from Tsinghua University and member of the committee that drafted the law, said that those aspects having to do with the media were not even in the draft when the group first met and he did not know how or when they had been added.[6]

More than 100 million Chinese have access to the Internet, and hundreds of commercially driven newspapers, magazines, and television stations provide a much wider selection of news and information than was available in the past. But Chinese regime authorities have sought fresh ways to curtail reporting on topics they consider harmful to social and political stability.

Currently, two former staff members of Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, are currently serving prison terms of eight and six years, respectively. It seems that their newspaper’s aggressive reporting on public issues, including SARS, sparked the authorities’ ire. According to Reporters Without Borders, as of the date of this article, 32 journalists had been imprisoned, the latest being Yang Xiaoqing from Zhongguo Chanjing Xinwenbao (China Industry and Economics Newspaper), who was arrested on January 22, 2006, for reporting on government officials’ corruption and misappropriation of state assets.[7] Yang was sentenced to a one-year prison term after being convicted of "blackmailing."[8]

On July 3, 2006, Wang Yongqing, Deputy Director of the Legislative Office of the China State Council, stated that the draft law is meant to target those instances where local governments do not provide timely and accurate reports to the public, and to prevent the media from publishing untrue reports. Wang further stated that the government did not propose any law or regulation that would prohibit the media from reporting these events. On the contrary, if the media uncovered a case of corruption, it would be rewarded, not punished, said Wang. "This has been institutionalized and there are clear regulations on this point."[9]{mospagebreak}

However, the Deputy Director’s explanation is not in the same spirit of the wording in the Article 57 of the draft law. Nor could it explain how Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News) was heavily fined, instead of rewarded, for its reporting of the outbreak of SARS while several of its reporters were imprisoned. As for Yang Xiaoqing who is serving a one-year prison term, if the Deputy Director’s words were true, the government should have rewarded him for reporting the corruption cases—yet his reporting was the very reason he was sentenced.


[2] Id.
[4] See also
[6] The financial magazine Caijing interviewed experts and members of the National People’s Congress.

Xiao Tian is a correspondent for Chinascope.