Sat, Jul 02, 2005 - Page 4 News List

China's journalists fight uphill battle

CENSORSHIP Beijing's iron grip on news is under attack, but the lists from propaganda departments of stories that cannot be reported is still in full effect

THE GUARDIAN , Guangzhou

It could have been the scoop of the year: the deputy governor of Henan Province had reportedly conspired with a local mayor to have his wife killed and chopped up. If proven, the murder would rank as one of the worst crimes by a senior official for decades.

But the story was a minefield. Knowing how many papers have been closed down, and how many journalists arrested, for covering such sensitive topics, most editors gave Henan a wide berth.

The exception was the Nanfang Daily Press Group, whose papers are increasingly earning national respect, and official condemnation, for their coverage of China's social ills.

When reports of the killing emerged last month, reporters from two of the group's flagship titles, the Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend, flew to the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, and talked to the victim's family, colleagues, and detectives.

Off the record sources confirmed the murder and arrest, but a request for an official comment effectively killed the story. Henan's propaganda department ordered a news blackout.

It was nothing new. That week, three other Southern Weekend stories were spiked by the authorities. Nothing was published on police negligence in floods that killed 100 school children, nor on six villagers murdered in battles with gangs recruited by power companies to kick them off their land, nor poor safety planning that led to a fire in which 31 died.

Even after their stories were buried, the journalists used other means to get the news out, via private diaries and field notes posted on the Internet or circulated by e-mail. Some revealed they had to travel in near secrecy to avoid local authorities. Others said they used public phones to avoid being traced, and filed from net cafes and through friends.

"As a journalist, my job should be focused on writing a good report. But half of my effort is spent on considering how to get a story past the censors and the likelihood of punishment," said Liu Jianqiang, whose Henan story was spiked. "By writing out these notes, hopefully I can emerge from this gloomy mood. To act otherwise, by keeping my head low and docile in the face of mistreatment, and by pretending I'm a `good citizen,' my heart would feel bitter," Liu said.

The risks are great. Last year, three editors from the Nanfang group -- Yu Huafeng, Li Minying and Cheng Yizhong -- were imprisoned on fraud charges, an act of revenge by the local public security bureau when the authorities closed down the 21st Century Herald and the New Herald.

"It's very traumatic. I don't want to have to go through that again," one veteran said. "Now, every time a sensitive story comes in, I'm nervous. To be a good journalist in China, you can't just be an idealist; you must be a realist too."

southern vanguard

But the system that nurtured so many good journalists is still in place. Guangdong was one of the first provinces to open to the outside world. Reflecting its modern business environment, the Southern Weekend blazed a trail in 1992 when its parent company, a party-controlled propaganda organ, transformed what had been a four-page celebrity gossip sheet into a hard-hitting news weekly.

The aim was to attract readers and advertising by being first to the news. Out went stodgy layout, in came smart design.

To encourage hard-hitting journalism, reporters were rewarded for the quantity and quality of their work. It was a huge success. The Nanfang Weekend now has a 1.3 million circulation nationwide. By breaking stories before officialdom had a chance to censor them, it and sister papers such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily and the Beijing News, have had more influence than others in shaping public debate on the dramatic social changes now taking place.

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