Rent-seeking by journalists will dent Chinese media's credibility
Hu Shuli says given the key role they play in society, reporters must keep their conduct honest no matter how difficult the working environment
The full facts of the dramatic arrest and subsequent confession of New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou are not yet known but there's no escaping the problem it revealed. The painful truth is that the case exposes the unforgivable practice of "rent-seeking" in Chinese journalism. Given the important role news media play in society, such corruption cannot be tolerated - even people who continue to speak up for Chen and the newspaper would agree with that.
Chen was arrested by Changsha police on October 18, and news of it emerged four days later. That night, New Express posted a message of support on its weibo feed, and ran front-page stories calling for his release two days in a row.
Given the paper's government connections and some comments by officials in Beijing, the arrest seemed at first to be a mistake. But the twist came three days later: Chen appeared on CCTV and admitted to taking bribes of more than 500,000 yuan (HK$632,000) to fabricate a series of stories targeting construction machinery company Zoomlion.
CCTV's reporting of the story was rightly criticised for being less than fair, and the manner of Chen's arrest and the investigation and prosecution also raised questions of collusion. Some valid concerns include: the questionable conduct of the Hunan police officers, who arrived in a Zoomlion car to arrest Chen; the apparent neglect of Chen's right to legal counsel; the vagueness of the charges of "damaging [a company's] commercial reputation" that have been slapped on him; the fact that he is so far the only person to be prosecuted even though the case clearly involved his employer.
The murky chain of relations that led to the arrest must be thoroughly probed.
At its heart, however, the allegation exposes the dark side of Chinese journalism. That someone should abuse his journalist's right to report should pain all of us who work in the industry. However, worse harm is being done to the credibility of the media, which plays a major role in every society's development. The onus is on us media professionals to exercise discipline and keep our conduct honest.
There's no freedom of speech without freedom of the press, and no social justice without the rule of law - both play a key role in a society in transition. As elsewhere, the media environment in China is rapidly changing due to the rise of the internet and new media.
But journalists in China, unlike in other countries, also have to deal with the pressure that comes from operating in a particular political environment. Perhaps because of this, it is doubly important for Chinese journalists to try to improve and protect the credibility of the media, for public trust is its most valuable asset and best defence. And the media cannot be credible without fair reporting.
Many media companies have been hit with lawsuits in recent years. Even those that upheld the professional standards of their business have not been immune from trouble. Yet we must insist on the bottom line of "no favouritism, no corruption, no self-interest, no groupthink". Without this, the media cannot be credible, and it cannot survive. All self-respecting journalists must adhere to this code of conduct.
If the allegations are true, Chen could not have acted alone. It's hard to imagine that an ordinary reporter could have filed more than 10 hard-hitting pieces targeting a single company without the support and help of the editors.
After the CCTV report, New Express issued a statement of apology and admitted it failed to fact-check his reports, but only gave the impression that there was more to the story than it was saying. Its U-turn embarrassed the profession, and its management are rightly taking responsibility for the fallout.
Chen's case should serve as a warning. Rent-seeking is not attributable to a misbehaving individual; it is an illness infecting the whole industry. Greed has no place in journalism. The problem is, in China's peculiar political and media environment, where media companies are government-linked, excessive interference and an absence of supervision co-exist, which makes it easier for people to succumb to temptation.
Thus, some media firms would smear companies that refuse to place ads with them, while others are happy to sell themselves as a public relations tool. Such practices are no secret within the industry; some even brag about them.
If allowed to fester, rent-seeking will stunt the healthy growth not just of China's media but its entire society.
Ultimately, the only way to root out rent-seeking is to ensure there is no room for such "price differentials". Chinese media is not given enough room for independent thinking, and there is no true competition to ensure the bad seeds are weeded out. Apart from the exercise of self-discipline, journalists need the rule of law, room for independence and adequate protection to thrive.
This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caixin.com