It has been five months since Hong Kong reporters were wrongly accused of illegal possession of drugs by Sichuan authorities last August and beaten and framed later by Xinjiang authorities the following month. Your union had issued a strong condemnation, organized a demonstration and a signature campaign against these unacceptable infringements of press freedom. Moreover, we lobbied individual legislators and deputies of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and members of Chinese Peoples’ Political and Consultative Conference (CPPCC) pushed for follow-up action when appropriate situations arose. We also urged them to consider means that can better protect and facilitate reporters covering news in mainland China.
However, individual delegates of the NPC suggested resolving the problem with a wrong approach. One NPC delegate thought that reporters were beaten up in Xinjiang because their status was not properly understood. Thus, it was suggested, misunderstandings would be clarified if a badge carrying the word “PRESS” to signify the identity of reporters were issued by the authorities. It might also guarantee the safety of journalists.
I rejected this suggestion because there might be adverse effects. It is well known that the identification badges work well in those countries which respect press freedom or in a war zone. However, adverse effects may occur in China in a non-war situation. It may inadvertently expose the identity of journalists and open the way for the stoppage of news coverage.
However, there was talk that the proposal was supported by individual Chinese officials. If put into place, not only adverse effects may occur, but the current system of having to apply for permits will be further consolidated. In turn, it may put more obstacles in the way of reporters covering news without hindrance on the mainland.
Allowing media workers to cover news freely without having to apply for a permit is not anything innovative. Journalists could cover news freely in China during the period after open door policy to the end of 1989. During that time, reporters only had to apply for accreditation for national conferences and functions that leaders attended. It is absurd to maintain the application system twelve years after China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong and with the further opening up of China.
Regrettably, the Chinese government dares not loosen the controls on freedom of expression as well as press freedom. It retains the regulation on prior approval of reporters covering news on the mainland. Although Chinese officials claim that flexibility will be given when reporters have to cover serious incidents, there are lots of questions that remain unresolved. For example, what kind of flexibility will be given? How to inform the local officials about such flexibility? How to ensure that the local officials who are aware of the flexible arrangements and yet choose not to abide by it? As long as such questions are not resolved, the practice of press freedom can only depend on the discretion of officials. The officials can tighten up measures as and when they wish, thus putting press freedom at stake.
I believe that the most simple and effective way is to quash the regulation requiring reporters to apply for prior permit. To say the least, such open policy may nurture a culture of open society and help prevent corruption.
Of course, our lobbying and the roars from the industry did bring positive results. Legislator James To personally raised the issue with deputy governor Wei Hong late last September when he visited Sichuan province. Mr. Wei replied that Chengdu is a city divided into a dozen districts. It was the local police station which received a report of alleged possession of drugs and took action to investigate. Wei claimed that he only learnt about the case after it had taken place. He reiterated that Sichuan province welcomed Hong Kong reporters covering news there.
Although Wei’s reply was not news to us, raising the question conveyed the serious concerns of Hong Kong people. The officials in mainland thus unavoidably felt the heat.
There were other incidents which showed that concerned Chinese officials felt the pressure. The different versions of the incidents emerging afterwards were indications of this. For example, one version claimed that it was a mistake caused by local accent. They claimed that the police were investigating incidents relating to independence of Tibet and certain phonetic sounds heard were somehow related to possession of drugs. This must be a joke and it was different from the explanation given by the deputy governor to Hong Kong legislators.
On matters relating to Xinjiang, it was claimed that local authorities had issued warnings before shooting tear gas and reporters at the scene refused to leave in spite of the authorities’ requests. This is questionable because it contradicts what officials had said earlier that they did not know the three people who had been beaten up were reporters. When asked why the authorities did not ask to see the tapes of close circuit television stored along roads or traffic lights, the officials replied that there were no such installations in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. It is quite unbelievable because some second-tier cities have already installed such closed circuit television.
Such irresponsible explanations were given because they knew that the central government would not make the investigation reports public and there would be no harm even if they gave perfunctory answers. According to them, it was only a procedure for questions and answers by respective officials. The perfunctory attitude of officials will not improve if such irresponsible culture does not change.
To solve the problem, the central government must push forward a “sunshine” policy. Only with such a policy can the media perform its monitoring role which, rightly, is also claimed by the central government.
7th February, 2010.