Reacting to local press criticism of a bill that would impose fines on news media that publish unauthorised reports in situations of crisis, vice-minister of the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office Wang Yongqing gave a news conference in which he denied that this was an attempt to censor the media and said it would apply only to reports with “serious social consequences.” He did not however explain what he meant by this.
Wang said foreign news organisations could also be covered by the law. This was interpreted by Marie-Anne Toy, the China correspondent of the Australian daily The Age, as being a way for Beijing to censor the Hong Kong press, which still enjoys a degree of freedom and has in the past reported many developments which the government wanted to hide.
Media voices cautious opposition to draft law tightening censorship
Several newspapers have expressed their concern as the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) examines a draft law on the management of emergencies, which aims to tighten censorship.
Zhang Ping, in an editorial in Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), wrote that “in the instance of a coal-mining disaster this might be characterised (under this law) as a small-scale incident that need only be handled by local authorities.”
He added that “What this essentially means is that the release of all information is in the hands of local government.”
He added, “We believe as a matter of course that the spirit of watchdog journalism should be upheld in this law on emergency management but in fact this draft in its present form does exactly the opposite and doubtless represents a step back.”
Another newspaper, the Xin Kuaibao (New Express), condemns the fact that the law does not take into account the fact that “there is no way of verifying that the information in the hands of the government is the truest and most accurate.”
“The clause does not take into account the possibility that there are ‘man-made calamities' amidst ‘natural disasters'. In such cases this clause of the draft law would actually become a tool for corrupt officials who want to cover up their dirty deeds.”
The financial magazine Caijing interviewed experts and members of the National People's Congress. Yu An, a university professor from Tsinghua and member of the committee which drafted the law, said that aspects to do with the media were not in the draft when the group had first met and he did not know how they had been added. Zhang Qianfan, who teaches law at Beijing University, said he thought the measure “inappropriate” because media coverage almost never had a negative effect.
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Bill would step up censorship during crises
Reporters Without Borders today condemned proposals to step up censorship of the media's coverage of natural catastrophes, public health crises and industrial accidents contained in a crisis management bill that came before the standing committee of the National People's Congress on 24 June 2006. The bill envisages fines of 50,000 to 100,000 yuan (5,000 to 10,000 euros) for media that publish unauthorised information on such subjects.
"Adopting a law on crisis situations is not a bad thing in itself, but it is unacceptable to turn such a law into a instrument of censorship," the press freedom organisation said. "The government views the media as enemies in the struggle against epidemics, accidents and natural catastrophes. But lives would have undoubtedly been saved if the media had been free during the SARS crisis in 2003."
Reporters Without Borders added: "This bill returns China's journalists to the situation of censorship and self-censorship that prevailed before the SARS crisis. This is shocking. We call on the national assembly not to approve this bill as it stands."
The Thebeijingnews.com website said the media risk fines if they publish news reports about "the management or development of emergencies (without the approval of the authorities) or if they publish false reports."
Local authorities have the job of distributing news, and of supervising and managing the media in times of crisis. They are to "publish information about emergency situations only if it has no impact on their management."
A Chinese journalist with an international radio station said: "This law will discourage journalists. More and more media want to work for the general interest on these issues but they are being sidelined by the authorities."
The official news agency Xinhua said the bill was drafted as a result of the SARS epidemic. Censorship imposed by the government's publicity department (the former propaganda department) during the SARS epidemic kept the public in ignorance of the real situation for several months.