Supreme court's rules criticised as gag on press freedom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 December, 2009, 12:00am

Journalists will be subject to penalties for 'biased and malicious' court reports, under a new rule issued by the mainland's top court.

The Supreme People's Court said the rule was aimed at protecting press freedom and improving oversight of the judiciary, but lawyers said it was another step backwards in judicial reform.

Under the rule, courts are obliged to accommodate reporters in their coverage of open trials, including providing background briefings. But judges and their assistants are not allowed to take questions from the media on cases that are being tried.

Media outlets and reporters will be punished if coverage is found to be undermining national security, revealing national and commercial secrets, or insulting judges.

The court warned that those who were responsible for 'biased or malicious reports of ongoing trials which damage judicial authority and jeopardise fair trials' would be penalised. 'The rule is designed to regulate how courts accept media supervision and deal with the press ... and improve public trust in the legal system,' the court was quoted by China News Service as saying.

Legal experts said the rule fitted in with a 'backsliding' in judicial reform, in which a series of restrictions on the media had been rolled out.

It comes at a delicate time due to a spate of critical reports over the crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing and other high-profile cases.

Dr Wang Jianxun of China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing said it was not the first time the judiciary had tried to crack down on 'daring' media outlets.

'Although it says it will protect press freedom, all we can see in the rule is its attempt to impose restrictions and warnings about serious consequences,' he said.

Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing-based lawyer, said courts did not have the right to mete out punishment to reporters.

'It is an open secret that judicial officials at all levels are fed up with rampant media criticism and they always try to restrict press freedom by citing excuses such as hampering judicial justice,' he said.

Pu said courts may feel offended by critical coverage but they did not have authority over the media, which was controlled by the Communist Party's propaganda department and other agencies.