China media ethics debate rages as beverage giant slams paper for alleged smear

Nongfu Spring says Beijing Times reports on its water quality were orchestrated attack

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 12:40pm

Nongfu Spring, a leading national seller of bottled drinking water, has filed a complaint against the Beijing Times for publishing “false reports” about its water quality for a whole month, the company said in a weibo post on Monday.

The Hangzhou, Zhejiang-based company says it was retaliating against a series of 76 incriminating reports in the influential metropolitan subsidiary of the People’s Daily earlier this year.

Sales reportedly came to a standstill in the city after the Beijing Times alleged that the water standard used by the company was inferior to Soviet standards in a series of articles that spanned over a month between April and May.

Nongfu says the 76 articles of reporting by the Beijing daily were false and constituted an orchestrated attack against the company. It has filed a complaint with the General Administration of Press and Publication, the state press regulator in charge of issuing publication licences, it said.

Representatives of the Beijing Times have not yet responded to the allegations. They have previously stood by their reports.

Nongfu’s counter-attack comes half a year after the reports began, but just one day after a national meeting between senior editors and state regulators at the All-China Journalists Association in Beijing. Di Huisheng, the association’s Communist Party secretary, announced measures taken by the central government to curb “targeted news extortion”, namely incriminating reports on companies by journalists who were tipped off and, allegedly, handsomely rewarded by competitors.

In addition to ongoing Marxism classes for all of China’s roughly 300,000 accredited reporters, producers and editors, Di said five provinces were leading a pilot project with the establishment of “news morality committees”. The party’s Central Discipline Inspection has also hired 40 staff to better oversee the nation’s journalists, he said.

He referred to the case of Chen Yongzhou, a reporter with the Guangdong-based New Express newspaper, as an example of how journalism had been corrupted in the country. Chen was detained in October for “harming the commercial reputation” of Zoomlion, China’s second-largest maker of construction equipment, in a series of reports which alleged accounting fraud.

His newspaper rushed to his defence and called for his release in two front-page editorials, and other newspapers followed suit. Di’s national journalism association in a rare move also called for an investigation into his detention.

However, a week later, China Central Television aired an interview with the journalist, wearing prison clothes, in which he admitted that he had been paid by an unnamed third party to publish these articles under his name, once even without reading it.

The extra-judicial confession, which violates the new criminal procedural law, led Di’s association to condemn Chen’s behaviour. The New Express recanted its defence of its reporter and published a front-page apology.

“Some journalists don’t understand that they should pass on positive energy to realise the ‘Chinese Dream’,” Di said, referring to a recent party slogan. He added that journalists violating this principle would face administrative and legal repercussions.

Curiously, he mentioned another journalist’s case along with Chen: that of Xi Yongfen, the China Economic Times bureau chief in Henan province. So far, little is known about his fate.

Xi’s name has not appeared in news reports and staff reached in the paper’s editorial department in Beijing referred questions on his whereabouts to the Henan provincial government’s Press and Publication Bureau, which declined to comment. His mobile phone and his office phone numbers have both been deactivated.

For Florian Schneider, a lecturer in politics of modern China at Leiden University, the new measures will not make journalism any better in China. "Professionalism in journalism cannot simply be dictated top-down, particularly in a media system that prompts journalists to produce commercially motivated articles, and that regulates their performance with bonuses structures and other financial incentives," he said.

"Rather than punishing journalists for chasing after the money, it might be wise to ask why they need to chase after the money in the first place."