Fine line between news and secrets
It is the role of the media to unearth and publish information of public interest, which sometimes means printing or broadcasting material that governments do not want people to know or breaking news that officials want to control. In such cases journalists are discreet about inside sources because an official caught leaking secrets to the media, whether for profit of an altruistic motive, risks a career setback, especially in the secretive mainland bureaucracy.
Recent examples of this are the sentences of five and six years' jail imposed on two former officials for leaking confidential data about the mainland's gross domestic product, the consumer price index and the official money supply for two and a half years until last January. As a result, apparently, two international news agencies gained an enviable reputation for accuracy in predicting this data a week or two ahead of their official release, prompting an investigation.
Given the size and dynamic growth of China's economy, this data is sensitive. Economic trends on the mainland have the power to move markets. If the information fell into the wrong hands, inside traders could make big profits on stock and capital markets at the expense of ordinary investors. It is easy to see, therefore, why the government wanted to make a public example of the two former officials. The leaking of such data can have a significant impact on the markets.
Their activities were in breach of the mainland's secrecy laws. But the affair has highlighted once again China's loose definition of state secrets.
In this case the arrests and jail sentences have sent shockwaves through the mainland journalist community. Until it is more clearly defined the law could seriously hamper legitimate business reporting.
State secrets are defined broadly - as matters in the areas of politics, economy and national defence that involve national security and interests and could harm either. One result, for example, is that there is a fine line between collecting business intelligence and industrial espionage. In this respect the potential for available information to be labelled secret has already been well documented.
Imagine if a reporter talks to an economist whose predictions of GDP or CPI figures seem prescient, but are predictions nonetheless. It is not inconceivable that the journalist could be wrongly accused of breaking state security laws. In those circumstances how could he or she do their job properly? The government has a responsibility to plug loopholes. But the sentences imposed are harsh in that they send the wrong message to the media and journalists, even if none were arrested in this case.
Within the limitations imposed by state control, mainland media could serve the public interest better if the no-go area of state secrets was more clearly defined.