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Date Posted: 10:34 07/01/2004

Hacks of the world unite

Journalism is a hard life. Honest.

DESPITE APPEARANCES, it's hard being a journalist, and as The Guardian reports today, the job is getting harder. If we are not being shot at by Frelimo guerrillas, we are being beaten up by oppressed minorities. Even worse, we are expected to sit still while representatives of the local government hold press conferences about how wonderful the Shanghai Expo will be.

During the SARS crisis last year, Running Dog - always eager for recognition - ran around, striking a number of heroic poses while hassling the city's beleaguered hospital staff. In our articles, we made lots of wild predictions about the Apocalypse, and our important role in it. We gave detailed descriptions of the handcarts loaded with dead bodies, their bells pealing mournfully throughout the city's streets. Of course, when the authorities tried to shut us up for 'panic-mongering', we laughed in their faces. The truth will out, we said, courageously, before being bundled into the back of a truck.

Journalism, journalists often like to say, is not the easy, comfortable living it is sometimes made out to be, and in China, the situation is often considered more perilous than most. As Running Dog has mentioned before, it ranks behind only coalmining and policing in the list of the nation's most dangerous jobs.

For foreign hacks, tracked relentlessly by government officials, and apparently harrassed and bugged and phone-tapped by the police, it is usually nothing more than an inconvenience. Customarily, we are lectured by the Public Security Bureau each time we get our accreditation renewed. Behind the smiles, it seems perfectly clear that we are here on sufferance only, and that our status is tentative and constantly subject to revision. Guilt is presumed, pending the discovery of incriminating evidence. We are also required to report all our movements to the authorities, and submit all our interview requests to the local Foreign Affairs office for advance approval.

The situation can sometimes lead to paranoia - or at least a certain martyr complex - among journalists used to living in open societies. Our plight is nothing compared to that of our Chinese counterparts, however.

Recently, the official Xinhua News Agency looked back on several incidents of violence against reporters during 2003. The cases on the Xinhua list are uncontroversial, and the journalists have been formally acknowledged as victims. Reporters from Jinan, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanxi, Henan, Yichang, Changchun, Qingdao and Shenzhen have all been beaten up, threatened, rained with bricks, and generally mistreated by guards, professional thugs and even government officials, according to the report.

An expert at the Nanjing University Media Research Centre, Professor Pei Xiansheng, evidently also a specialist in stating the obvious, said that most of the cases occur when reporters want to write critical reports. Some individuals and enterprises, he said, actually put up signs at their gates saying, 'Beware fire, Beware Thieves, Beware Journalists'.

All this is nothing compared to the case of the reporter in Xi'an, who happened to write a series of reports on the links between the local government authorities and organized crime in the city. He was found dead, his neck gouged open by a knife. The verdict was declared as 'suicide', and follow-up reports were quickly forbidden.

The head of the Public Opinion Research Centre at the People's University in Beijing said that journalists being beaten up indicates that they are now 'disrupting' society much more frequently. On the surface, it is a negative phenomenon, he noted, but from another point of view, it shows that the 'function of journalism' has been strengthened.

A recent survey by actually showed that more than 80% of Chinese journalists believe that they are suffering from health problems, 57% believe that work pressure was too high, and only 5% felt that they could handle their job calmly. All this certainly explains why most of them choose to keep their head down, or take bribes.

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