Chinese Media Law Would Require Consent to Report on Emergencies

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

BEIJING, June 26 -- The Chinese government has drafted legislation to fine newspapers up to $12,000 if they report on emergencies without first getting permission from local authorities, official media said Monday.

The new restrictions would apply to coverage of natural disasters, health crises and social unrest, such as the riots that have broken out across rural China in recent years. In effect, the draft law would make local governments the sole arbiters of information as they manage emergency situations.

The draft law, which has been sent to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, marked a further tightening of controls on the media in a country already subject to censorship by the Communist Party's national, provincial and municipal propaganda departments. Chinese journalists lamented what they saw as another sign among many that President Hu Jintao's government is curbing what had been a slight liberalization of press freedoms in recent years.

"We have never had such a law before," said Jiao Guobiao, a former journalism professor at Beijing University who was barred from teaching last year after writing an essay criticizing China's censorship rules.

"They surely want to tighten their controls over us," said a reporter at a well-known magazine who, like many colleagues, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his job. "I expect that control over the press will become tighter and tighter."

Under a practice that has developed in recent years, Chinese journalists said, newspaper editors generally can publish sensitive stories using their own judgment, but at the risk of being called on the carpet afterward by party censors. The censors regularly coax senior editors by alerting them to certain subjects that are out of bounds and suggesting that others be handled with particular care.

This system has resulted in a gray area: Some newspapers dare to print stories others do not. But stepping too far beyond what the censors deem acceptable has cost several top editors their jobs in the past year.

One was Li Datong, who ran Freezing Point, a supplement in the China Youth Daily that published in January an essay questioning the official Chinese version of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In addition, Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times, was tried recently on charges of fraud and revealing state secrets after the newspaper published a story accurately predicting that former president Jiang Zemin would resign from the party's Central Military Commission.

Unlike news on other subjects, controls had never been loosened when it came to information about Hu and other senior party leaders. Where Hu is concerned, newspapers cannot stray from official New China News Agency reports, which according to agency journalists can be issued only after approval from party censors.

The draft law would put emergency news in a similar category. In doing so, it seemed to retreat from government pledges to be more open in emergency situations. The pledges followed attempts at coverup during the SARS epidemic in 2003 that allowed the disease to spread and, more recently, the coverup of a chemical spill that delayed cleanup operations as contaminated river water flowed toward the major city of Harbin.

The draft law, from Premier Wen Jiabao's cabinet, was designed to guide officials in handling such emergencies. It would oblige local officials to immediately report to Beijing on accidents -- such as the oil spills and coal mine explosions that plague China regularly -- and swiftly organize an emergency response. The draft law goes on to stipulate that local governments should "release information in an accurate and timely way," but that they should "conduct management work over the media's related reports."

In practice, local governments routinely seek to conceal embarrassing information, such as protests, and order local publications not to report it. Under the draft law, a newspaper's failure to cooperate would result in fines from $6,000 to $12,000.

"The problem is, who has the right to make the judgment whether the government releases information accurately or promptly?" Zhang Ping, editor of the Southern Weekend, wrote in a column Monday, adding later, "I think it is very dangerous to pass this law to guarantee the government can manage the media."

The cabinet's information office declined to comment or provide further information.

Radio and television stations, which are government-owned, traditionally have worked under close supervision and rarely veer from official information, making newspapers the law's main target.

Some journalists expressed hope that the National People's Congress, China's legislature, will reject the draft law's media provisions. In practice, however, the National People's Congress rarely, if ever, contests government decisions.

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