Changing attitude to media can only help

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am

The press is supposed to report news, not make it. But in the course of performing their role of facilitating a free flow of information and ideas, newspapers can become the news. Examples abound in democracies in which a free press is institutionalised. Some are good, such as The Washington Post's investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal that led to the downfall of former president Richard Nixon. Some are dubious, such as the recent publications by a Danish newspaper and others of cartoons considered blasphemous of the Prophet Mohammed.

Few newspapers, however, could have been in the headlines as much as the mainland press is now. This time the issue is the freedom of the press itself.

As our report today says, it has been a defining week for the Chinese media. It was marked by the sudden revival of the axed Bingdian Weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily - though not the reinstatement of its two most senior editors - and a flood of public criticism of the propaganda and censorship authorities. Former senior officials joined a public declaration of support for the weekly, and 13 leading intellectuals expressed concern about the curtailment of the basic right to freedom of speech in an open letter to President Hu Jintao .

Bingdian Weekly was closed after publishing a controversial article questioning the official interpretation of historical events. This capped a series of crackdowns that mainland journalists describe as the worst censorship in recent years, including the sacking of the chief editor of the outspoken and popular Beijing News.

China's economic reforms have led to an explosion of profit-driven media, more attuned to the concerns of its readers and increasingly willing to test the boundaries of what is permissible with provocative reporting and comment.

The number of publications has increased more than 11-fold to about 2,000. Many are competing aggressively for readers and advertising revenue with a mix of information, infotainment and breaking news. These are healthy developments. The free flow of ideas and information is essential to a healthy market economy and the fulfilment of China's economic and social potential.

Mainland officials have acknowledged in the past that investigating and reporting official misdeeds and government flaws is an essential part of the media's role. At times they have even encouraged reporters to expose corruption. In 2003, the year news of the Sars outbreak emerged after an official cover-up, the then new top leadership signalled a more liberal approach by encouraging the media to venture into sensitive areas such as investigative reporting on accidents and disasters. But the following year controls were tightened again. China now holds 31 journalists in its jails, many on charges of breaking vague but sweeping state secrets laws.

It seems, however, that the recent crackdowns and the widespread reaction have stoked debate within the government between conservatives who believe control over the media is essential to social stability, and those who do not fear a more open system.

This is supported by the about-face that will allow Bingdian Weekly to resume publication, though it remains to be seen whether it keeps its bold agenda. It is reflected in the status of the signatories to the declaration of support for the weekly, who include a former secretary to Mao Zedong and a former editor of the People's Daily, and a former propaganda chief.

The debate is welcome and should be encouraged. That is one of the most constructive ways of convincing the Chinese authorities to rethink their attitude towards the media. As long as they continue to see it as a threat instead of a tool of transparency and accountability, and a check on abuse of power, China's social and economic development will suffer.