Mainland reporters need better protection

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 August, 2010, 12:00am

A journalist's professional instinct should be to serve the public interest; to provide checks and balances when something seems wrong; and to help society make informed decisions. It is certainly what Shanghai reporter Qiu Ziming did in exposing apparent insider trading and wrongdoing in a company that makes paper and batteries. Authorities took action, opening up an inquiry - but not into the company. Instead, they put Qiu on their 'most wanted' list for allegedly damaging the firm's reputation.

In a technology-savvy China, little goes unnoticed. Public suspicion of official malpractice was swift, sparking outrage. Authorities were forced to step in, ordering that the warrant for Qiu's arrest be dropped and an apology be given to his newspaper. Equally as welcome, the government's media watchdog uncharacteristically joined the fray, stressing the importance of protecting journalists' rights. It is not proof of a changed atmosphere, but is a hopeful sign that the public see the value in public-service journalism, and that officials will take heed of that.

This is not to say that officials do not see journalists as important. They have always had this status to the Communist Party, being put alongside soldiers in significance. Mao Zedong stated that clearly, famously saying that the gun and pen were crucial to maintaining power. But the opening of the nation means that reporters also need to help keep an eye on power: ending corruption and abuse of privilege, as well as developing fairer, more open and transparent marketplaces are among the many national goals that journalists can help bring about.

To do that, journalists cannot be seen as a branch of the government, and expected to further its policies. A free and open media is a critical part of bringing more information and choice to society; freeing journalists from their propaganda role and letting them follow their instincts helps achieve this. China could use more reporters like Qiu, and reporters like Qiu could use more legal protection to do their work properly.