China Considers Fines for 'Sudden Event' Reports

A draft law being reviewed by China's legislature would impose fines on the Chinese media if they report on "sudden events" without official approval from local governments. Wall Street Journal reporter Geoffrey Fowler says those "sudden events" could include things such as mining disasters, health scares and riots.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

China could impose fines on media outlets if they report on public emergencies without official approval. The Chinese legislature, the National People's Congress, is considering a draft law that would tighten media control.

Geoffrey Fowler covers Chinese media for the Wall Street Journal and is following the story from Hong Kong. Mr. Fowler, the fines are supposed to be for cases where the media report of what are being called sudden events. What will be included in that category?

Mr. GEOFFREY FOWLER (The Wall Street Journal): Any number of emergencies that the Communist government has sometimes in the past tried to cover up. This could include health scares, such as SARS or bird flu. It could also include mining disasters or even riots from people that are unhappy with their local governments.

BLOCK: Well, if you're a member of the Chinese media now trying to report on some of these things that you mentioned, what are the rules right now and how would those change under this proposed law?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, it's very complicated, but in general all Chinese newspapers are owned by the government. So that means everybody is already supposed to technically report news that reflects official facts and the government's interpretation of events. That said, there's a lot of red tape and there are loopholes.

And in recent years, the government has sometimes struggled to rein in aggressive and sometimes really inaccurate coverage from the Chinese news media. I mean, one factor here is that in recent years the Chinese news media has become a commercial endeavor. It used to be all paid for and run by the government. They're now kind of fighting against each other for advertiser dollars and for readers. And that means they want to attract readers with sexy stories.

So sometimes, you would hope that that would lead to really good reporting, and other times it leads to really bad reporting and made up stories. And so, from the government's perspective, this is about, officially about trying to prevent fake news or inaccurate reporting or reporting that would lead to unnecessary crises for local governments that are trying to deal with real problems.

BLOCK: And would this be the first time that they actually imposed fines for some of this reporting?

Mr. FOWLER: In the past, reporters who have gone beyond what the government wanted have been either taken out of their jobs, there have been newspapers and magazines which have been closed, there are editors who have been investigated for corruption and put in jail. But this is now one more potential tool.

And it does a couple of things. One is the fines. And another thing that it does is it consolidates the authority within a local government to determine what the official take on a new story is going to be. And that's a big thing. Because, say there's an HIV problem in one particular province - and this has actually happened - the local government may not want local reporters covering that.

However, you know how journalists are, they'll say to their buddy in Beijing or in some far-flung province, hey, you should come visit us and report on what is going on here. I can't do it because my censors won't let me, but you'll be able to do it. And so, this has actually been happening a lot and it's helped to reveal some interesting problems in China.

Now, what this new proposed law would do is say that even if you are coming from a far-flung province, you have to abide by what the local government wants. And that is actually the element of this proposed law that has gotten Chinese journalists most upset.

BLOCK: What kind of reaction has there been to this proposed law and does it seem that it will actually pass?

Mr. FOWLER: Well, the reaction has been one of the most interesting aspects of this story. One of the newspapers, in fact, that got hit after SARS for having done some reporting on it ran a very interesting editorial calling the proposal nonsense and a step back. Many Chinese reporters and editors found that editorial very bold. But they also said it shows that there could be, you know, additional discussion and critique of this proposal and it is only a draft and that there's no guarantee that it will go through.

BLOCK: Geoffrey Fowler, thanks very much.

Mr. FOWLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Geoffrey Fowler is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He spoke with us from Hong Kong.

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