Correction to This Article
In a Jan. 25 article on blackmail by Chinese journalists, Hua Kejian, Liang Yongjian and Song Yi were named by several knowledgeable sources as participants in a blackmail scheme. Hua, Liang and Song deny they were part of the scheme or knew about it. They say that, however those involved in the scheme portrayed it, they never had any intention of accepting money in return for withholding news.

Blackmailing By Journalists In China Seen As 'Frequent'

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 25, 2007

SHENZHEN, China -- At 9 p.m. in a dark Shenzhen parking lot, Bai Xiuyu handed over a plain brown envelope containing 15,000 Chinese yuan, the equivalent of nearly $2,000, in what was supposed to be a discreet blackmail payment to a local reporter.

Hidden in Bai's car, Gou Hua, Shenzhen bureau chief for the Southern Metropolitan Daily, watched the scene unfold and recorded the transaction with his cellphone camera. His interest was more than journalistic; the reporter receiving the payoff was Zhou Yu, a 29-year-old newcomer to Gou's own bureau.

To his consternation, what Gou saw the evening of Sept. 21 was another instance of the blackmail journalism metastasizing through China's news media. Bai's money was supposed to buy silence on alleged wrongdoing at her health clinic in this southern Chinese city. But more generally, journalists and officials say, Chinese reporters are demanding such hush money with increasing regularity from businesses and government agencies in exchange for the withholding of unfavorable news.

"It's very, very frequent," said Ma Yunlong, an editor whose newspaper exposed an instance of extravagant extortion in central Henan province in 2005. Ma said the case involved 480 reporters and others pretending to be reporters who asked for "shut-up fees" to keep news of a mine flood out of the public eye.

In many ways, blackmail journalism grew naturally out of a system in which Communist Party censors control the news rigorously, barring reports that could be seen as unfavorable to the party or contrary to the government's political goals. If the ruling party distorts the news for political reasons, blackmailing reporters have concluded, why wouldn't they do it themselves for financial reasons?

In addition, local party officials, long used to manipulating information, have been complicit in the payoff system when it suits their needs. In the everybody-does-it atmosphere, even non-reporters have found ways to get in on the take by posing as journalists.

After the August 2005 mine disaster, for instance, reporters and their friends in Henan province dispatched a flurry of cellphone messages as soon as they heard the news -- not because they were eager to report on it, but because they knew local officials would be eager to hush it up.

By the time Fan Youfeng of the Henan Business News arrived at the mine, in a village in Jiliao county, local officials said they had already given money to so many reporters and phony reporters that the coffers were dry. But still more people showed up, Fan wrote, and the officials sought more cash, pressing the mine owners to chip in.

Journalists and poseurs lined up to get their handouts, he said, with some pushing and jumping the queue. Over several days, the extortionists carried away 200,000 yuan, or more than $25,000, he reported, quoting officials and a list signed by those who got the cash.

Encouraged by Ma, his editor, Fan wrote a story for the Henan Business News about what had happened. It was the first open discussion of what had become a widespread if secretive practice, Ma said with a note of pride.

As a result, however, an official from the central government propaganda department visited from Beijing and accused Ma of publishing an "inappropriate" and "false" story. The newspaper was suspended for a month, Ma was forced to retire and Fan was reprimanded, Ma said. The death toll from the mine disaster was never reported, he added.

"This kind of thing has an important impact on the success of local officials," Ma explained, "so they always want to cover it up."

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