Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Feature: Chinese see murder of journalist as cautionary message to media workers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

Lan Chengzhang (蘭成長) sat in a car outside the office of a mining company while two of his colleagues ventured inside to make inquiries.

It was the first month of work with his newspaper, the China Trade News, and the 35-year-old reporter had taken on what anyone in the area knew could be a dangerous assignment: investigating the illegal coal mines that proliferate in the sooty hill country of Shanxi Province.

Within minutes, a band of men armed with lengths of pipe and other crude weapons set upon him, beating him so badly that within a few hours he succumbed to his injuries. Though severely beaten, his colleague from the China Trade News survived to tell the tale.

Attacks against journalists are not uncommon in China, even if deaths are rare. But in ways that few could have expected, the murder of this untested reporter for an obscure publication on Jan. 11 has become a watershed event, with reporters and editors around the country seeing in the murky contours of the case a cautionary tale for their booming but troubled profession.

That Lan's death has become a national event was helped in no small measure by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who in an unusual statement a few days afterward demanded that justice be done.

But it also highlighted the culture of corruption that many journalists acknowledge pervades the industry, particularly the practice among some reporters of demanding money from subjects to avoid damaging articles.

Hu, who has spoken often of the need for the government to strengthen its control over the news media, has been seen as anything but a friend of journalists. After several days of intense commentary about the killing in the international news media and on Chinese blogs and Web sites, Hu may have been moved to protect his country's image.

"Hu Jintao is very much concerned about China's international image," said Zhan Jiang (張健), dean of journalism at the Youth Politics Institute in Beijing. "Since this incident has been widely reported both at home and overseas, he had to do something."

Inside the Chinese news media, introspection over Lan's killing has been unusually forthright, mixing criticism of the government with harsh self-examination. Beijing is condemned for limiting the scope of honest, aggressive journalism and the journalists themselves are condemned, indeed by themselves, of giving in to corruption as a professional way of life.

"This kind of control and degeneration are inseparable," said Zhang Ping, a veteran reporter at Southern Metropolis magazine. "The control dims the hopes one has for a career in journalism, and many reporters, such as people at Xinhua [news agency], don't have any honorable feelings from being a journalist. They get no rewards the normal way and discover that in China only lie-telling can bring you income."

Huang Liangtian (黃良天), who was recently dismissed as editor of Baixing magazine because of its probing investigative style, was more caustic in his assessment.

"China basically doesn't have any journalists in the real sense," he said, dismissing the hairsplitting that many have engaged in over whether Lan was properly credentialed or not. "Everybody is part of the machine, a propagandist for the party's policy."

In fact, the scope for reporting has expanded significantly in the last decade, worrying the government. But along with the explosion in the number of titles have come strong commercial pressures, bringing about what many describe as a compulsion to mix news-gathering and advertising.

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