Friday, January 26, 2007

The dark side of an emerging free press in China

Edward Cody of the Washington Post describes an ugly trend in China's increasingly freewheeling press corps: Demanding hush money from companies, officials, and other alleged wrongdoers in exchange for not covering bad news. It's supposedly quite common, and has attracted legions of bogus reporters who sometimes mob disaster scenes clamoring for a bribe.

Cody makes a questionable connection about how this system arose, however. He claims that state-mandated news controls and censorship are at the root of the problem:
In many ways, blackmail journalism grew naturally out of a system in which Communist Party censors control the news rigorously, barring reports that could be seen as unfavorable to the party or contrary to the government's political goals. If the ruling party distorts the news for political reasons, blackmailing reporters have concluded, why wouldn't they do it themselves for financial reasons?
While that may be the excuse or theory that he was told by some of his sources, the actual reasons seem to be greed, opportunism, and observation. All it takes is one braggart to say how easy it was to pocket a few thousands remnminbi -- others with no scruples are sure to follow.

Another aspect of greed and compromised ethics in the Chinese press world is the rise of cash for coverage, something I observed in Taiwan when I worked for the China Television Company back in the mid-1990s.

To be sure, not every Chinese journalist is on the take; indeed, many in the Chinese press community seem to have very high moral standards and a sense of journalistic duty to uncover scandals and corruption, and report the truth, despite threats to their livelihoods and even violence.

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