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HK media scrutinizes malpractices
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-03-27 08:35

Prevent fires, guard against theft, and watch out for reporters.

These are said to be major items on some Hong Kong officials' working agenda.

Are reporters so "threatening?"

Paparazzi may be. But they dog only entertainment or sports celebrities. Seemingly, government officials are not their targeted prey.

The fear comes from the general role of the media in supervising social affairs, or as some officials might phrase it, "muckraking for the negatives."

China, with its society undergoing great changes, has seen solid social progress while occasionally suffering from unpleasant social ailments, such as corruption, governmental incompetence and official malfeasance.

The supervisory media has played an active role in rectifying social malpractices. Newspapers, magazines and TV stations spare no efforts in exposing and lashing out at social evils.

Reporters' unveiling of the facts behind a series of mine accidents in recent years, in which the culprits and local officials tried every means to cover up the truth is fresh in our memories.

Though not so arresting as the uncovering of facts behind mining disasters, reporters can also make things difficult for officials who have behaved in ways unbefitting to people in their positions.

Journalists, it seems, are the thorn in the flesh of badly behaving officials, who fear reporters more than fires or thieves.

This contradiction stems from the old but not unsolvable problem of the relationship between the media and the government.

Since government should be accountable to the people, the people have a right to supervise the government.

And the media can play an effective role in supervising the government and promoting communication between the government and the people.

Since both the government and the media are there to serve the people, it seems logical that the two should work together.

In reality, however, things are not that way.

The central government has promised to promote media supervision of its operations to better serve the interests of the people. The latest call comes from Premier Wen Jiabao's government work report at the annual session of the National People's Congress.

"We will conscientiously support the general public's supervision of government. Government at all levels ... should accept the scrutiny of the mass media and the general public," he said.

But not all people are happy at hearing criticism, which is sometimes viewed as having "ulterior" motives or as damaging to the image of the person criticized.

Cases have cropped up in recent years of reporters being deprived of their reporting rights.

In these cases, the reporters are typically accused of "having failed to report the truth."

Here, "truth," an objective reality, is often interpreted in subjective ways.

A way out is to find a proper solution that can ensure the supervisory role of the media while keeping reporters straight in their reporting.

East China's Jiangxi Province seemed to have achieved this by inventing a new supervisory method.

The provincial information department reportedly decided to engage 100 supervisors from society to "improve the quality of news reporting in the province" and promote the "professional ethics" of the media.

It sounds like a lofty and ambitious goal.

The main responsibilities of these supervisors are to supervise the "orientation of the media, truthfulness of reporting and professional ethics," according to the provincial implementation methods.

No doubt the media, which has a role in supervising others, should itself be put under supervision. It is possible that the media, just like the government, may go awry if they can do anything they like unchecked.

The honesty of news reporting and the professionalism of the media have a great bearing on social welfare. In this sense, supervision is necessary.

One of the major functions of the media is to keep an eye on the work of the government.

Given the government's possession of unmatched resources, the powers of government need to be put under check, to keep it on the right track.

A series of incidents last year involving some local governments' abuse of power - the cover-up of the mine accident in Fanshi in North China's Shanxi Province - bears testimony to the necessity of such a mechanism.

It is not rare that local government officials throw obstacles in the way of reporters whose reports may "tarnish the image of the government."

If local media criticizes local government or officials for their misconduct and is criticized by media supervisors, will the government think this promotes or damages "professional media ethics?"

In other words, who is entitled to judge the soundness of news reporting?

I do not doubt the good intention of the Jiangxi authorities to "promote media professionalism." But the administrative authorities do not have to put that extra burden on their own shoulders.

The media have a journalists' association to discipline its members. Relevant laws also provide adequate guarantee for solving disputes between the media and other members of society.

If that is not enough, the public and various social organizations have the right to supervise the media.

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