CHINA / National

Draft law to make media 'responsible'
Updated: 2006-07-03 20:22

A draft Chinese law flagging fines for media reporting disasters without official authorisation is aimed at "irresponsible" journalists but may cover foreign reporters, a Chinese official said on Monday.

Chinese news reports of the proposed Law on Response to Contingencies, which threatens fines of 50,000 yuan (US$6,250) to 100,000 yuan (US$ 12,500)for misleading reports, last week provoked worries among Chinese journalists and advocates of free speech who say it will add to officials' brimming armoury of censorship rules.

"It's bad law," said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University who often criticises state controls. "If it becomes law, it will become even more impossible for news media to report truthfully when sudden events occur."

But the law is intended to improve news and protect society by stressing both officials' duty to disclose and journalists' duty to report accurately, said Wang Yongqing, Vice-Minister of the State Council Legislative Affairs Office.

"If information released is untruthful or inaccurate, or if information is bogus, it can spark unnecessary panic in society and even create grave social harm," Wang told a news conference in Beijing. "A fundamental goal of this law is to force the government to give timely information."

The fines would be levied only when reporters issue maliciously false reports or when groundless reports create serious social harm, Wang said. "None of these regulations will restrict or adversely affect timely reporting," he said.

But the proposed law nonetheless stipulates that reporters should seek government approval before reporting on natural disasters, outbreaks or disease, riots and other kinds of what China calls "sudden events" or "contingencies."

Officials should "engage in managing related media reports," it says. Wang said the law would apply to major protests and riots, as well as natural disasters, mine accidents and other unexpected events.

The law will also apply to foreign news organisations reporting from China, suggested Wang.

"If a Chinese reporter goes to France or Britain, he also has to abide by your laws," Wang told reporters. "It's aimed at the activity. If you engage in reporting activities - including myself, Wang Yongqing - you also have to obey these rules."

Wang said there was no firm date for putting the proposed law on the books, but it was possibly some time this year. The draft law has not been released to the public, apart from the fragments reported in the press and cited by Wang.