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Date Posted: 22:55 08/11/2004

China celebrates Reporters' Day

But they don't even get a day off.

JUST AS novelists are inevitably drawn towards writing novels about novelists, journalists are never happier than when they write about journalism. In China, today is Reporters' Day, and they have, for one day a year at least, been granted their wish.

There is, unfortunately, no day off, but beleaguered hacks across the land will get the opportunity to hear speeches by representatives of the local propaganda bureau, detailing how important the profession can be, and how they ought to develop a greater sense of responsibility to temper their growing power. They will hear how new laws are being passed to protect their rights, and to prevent angry coal mine bosses from hunting them down and killing them. They will also enjoy a number of banquets in which important government officials try to stuff thirty courses of junk down their gullets as quickly as possible in the hope that they can escape, soon, from the pernicious presence of the journalists themselves.

Still, the occasion gives the press an opportunity to lament the terrible injustices suffered by Chinese reporters at the hands of corrupt local bureaucrats and businessmen, and to speak in general terms about how the important role of journalists needs to be protected in law against unscrupulous bastards who do not want the truth to be told. Tales will be told of idealistic young writers being clubbed almost to death by the hired goons of some local factory owner responsible for polluting the local water supply, or of journalists encircled by angry peasants wielding a variety of farming implements and expressing their quaint hostility to strangers. The more prosaic but equally unsettling conditions of journalistic life in China - the quiet phone call from the boss ordering you to nix a story you were planning to write, or the pervasive conditions of self-censorship - will remain unmentionable.

Still, the more brutal anti-hack activities are going to be condemned. According to official government news agency Xinhua, a growing number of reporters have suffered beatings, threats, curses, vandalized or destroyed equipment and acts of revenge in the course of their duties. 'Many legal rights are not fully guaranteed,' Xinhua says. If those legal rights include the right not to be hit on the head with a mallet, then the point is well-taken.

Journalists do not enjoy the highest reputation in China, especially among other journalists. Here, the chief reporter for the Fireman's Weekly will turn up at a press conference about fish stocks in the Dongting Lake, and the entertainment correspondent of Ningxia Daily will dutifully appear at the opening ceremony of the Golmud Cement Factory, not through diligence or a desire to increase the sum of knowledge, but because they are given what is tactfully described as a travel bonus, amounting usually to about 300 RMB. If they are actually forced to write something, they show no compunction at all about plagiarizing someone else's work, or eavesdropping on someone else's interview.

One might say that the treatment meted out to reporters in China, and the conditions of censorship and control under which they are forced to operate, almost justifies their behaviour. One also comes to understand why so many of them ask the most banal, preposterous questions during press conferences. After all, it isn't worth being locked up or killed for.

An expert quoted by Xinhua says that legal protection for journalists is not specific enough to have any effect. What is euphemistically described as 'local protectionism', and which generally refers to the rural reigns of terror by tin-pot local Party chiefs, is also very serious in certain places, and the limits on the activities of reporters naturally become more stringent.

To help protect the profession, Xinhua chooses to give a lesson in journalistic ethics, telling us to 'maintain objectivity, honesty, fairness and comprehensiveness, especially in critical reports'. It tells us to pay attention to the collection and preservation of evidence and primary interview materials. It tells us to maintain contact with the local police force in particularly dangerous circumstances, and to report rights violations as soon as possible. It tells us to study the law.

And so, the law is precisely what we choose to study. Foreign hacks don't quite have it so bad, apart from all the lay-offs, but there are problems, as Jonathan Watts of the Guardian realized after being detained by Beijing's finest police officers in September following an interview he conducted with a pair of foreign activists demanding freedom for Tibet.
The rules under which foreign hacks operate in China are essentially a catch-all. If we fall foul of the system, we can be buried in the big legal hole presented in the Guidebook for Foreign Journalists and issued to every one of us as soon as we receive our visa. Essentially, we are not allowed to talk to anyone, at all, or visit any area for any purpose whatsoever without the express and written permission of the Foreign Affairs Office of the area in question.

Article 15 states that all foreign journalists must apply to the 'relevant foreign affairs departments' for approval to interview China's 'top leaders' and for 'news coverage regarding China's government departments or other departments'. They should 'obtain in advance permission from the foreign affairs office of the people's government of a province, autonomous region or municipality… for news coverage in an open area in China'.

It certainly cramps one's style, but the rules are rarely enforced to the maximum. Should they have reason to believe that you are causing too much trouble, or are about to reveal facts that may indeed bring the foundations of the nation crashing down, then the full weight of the regulation will no doubt be brought to bear.

At the time, Kong Quan, the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, was full of disdain.China already provided many advantages to foreign journalists, he said, and had made great efforts to protect their rights.

All this It pales in comparison with the treatment meted out to the New York Times researcher, Zhao Yan, formally arrested last month for his role in revealing the 'state secrets' pertaining to Jiang Zemin's resignation. Two media cultures clashed. While the plagiarism scandals that hit the New York Times last year have led the paper towards a policy of complete disclosure, the presence of Zhao Yan's name at the bottom of the article in question was, apparently, enough to lead to his arrest. China may, as Kong Quan claimed, have done a lot to protect the rights of foreign journalists, but the rights of their Chinese counterparts need improving.

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