Information gag is wrong - journalists have duty to report in public interest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 4:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 8:43am

Mainland media do not always enjoy full home-ground advantage in reporting on the rise of modern China. Heavy censorship can make it a tough assignment. On occasion journalists push the boundaries of what they are allowed to report, in the finest traditions of their profession. When officials allow this it is often positive for transparency and accountability of government.

Examples include exposure of the cover-up of the Sars outbreak that spread to Hong Kong in 2003, uncensored coverage of the Sichuan earthquake diaster in 2008 and the reporting of the tragic melamine-tainted milk-formula scandal the same year. To be sure, respite from censorship of state media is only temporary. But resourceful journalists have found other outlets, like the internet - even if postings can be swiftly taken down - or overseas journalists, including Hong Kong media, to whom they have passed unpublished reports or material they are not allowed to pursue.

Information of public interest has often found its way into the public domain by these routes. But not for much longer, if the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has its way. The media regulator has issued a directive banning mainland journalists from independently revealing information gathered in their work, specifically including state and commercial secrets and information that has not been publicly disclosed. They are now required to sign confidentiality agreements with their employers and face penalties for violating them, including criminal prosecution for passing information to overseas media.

This is an attempt to ensure information is reported only after a tight censorship process. It does lay down rules for handling state secrets, but the definition of these remains so broad that the law has obvious potential for abuse by officials wanting to hide information from the public. That is precisely why the information gag is to be condemned. It remains the duty of journalists to report matters of public interest.

Veteran journalist Gao Yu , 70, was detained in April for allegedly leaking a Communist Party document to overseas media. The contents of that document were later widely reported in mainland media as a matter of public interest. It is regrettable that she remains in detention - even more so if she is joined by other journalists who now appear at greater risk of being detained merely for doing their jobs.