A recent article in the Legal Daily summarized a number of investigations and administrative penalties by the State administration of press and publication, radio and television (SAPPRT). The listed violations involve a wide range of subject matters, but all focus on the media’s responsibility to investigate before reposting or drafting stories. While clearly intended as a warning to other news groups, it also provides some insight into what situations will bring on an investigation, and what the corresponding penalties might be.
Note that there is no mention of any need to demonstrate harm beyond the spread of false information and seemingly no request that a correction be issued as part of the penalties. Also interesting is that all of the news items in question are still easily found online, despite Chinese internet regulators’ recognized excellence at purging undesirable information. This calls into question whether the concern is really the harm of misleading the public or something else.
- December 21, 2014: The Yangtse Evening Post [扬子晚报]was cited for running a story found online without verification when the story was revealed to be an advertising stunt. The story recounted how a man’s future in-laws were so moved by his gift of 20 train tickets he purchased on an online discount that they reduced the requested betrothal gifts by half. The story was of course, an ad for the travel booking service. The Jiangsu provincial SAPPRT gave the paper a warning and a fine of 10,000 rmb. [Note that advertisements masquerading as news stories is now also prohibited by the Advertising Law, which took effect September 1, 2015. The story is still available here: http://politics.people.com.cn/n/2014/1222/c1001-26249688.html
- December 2, 2014: The second story, a celebrity gossip piece falsely stating that famed opera singer and actor Li Yugang had become a monk at a temple in Taiwan, was picked up by a larger number of papers across several provinces. Hubei’s Wuhan Evening Post and Jingzhou Daily, Jiangxi’s Ganzhou Evening Post, Inner Monglia’s Baotou Evening Post, Inner Mongolia Morning Post, the New North News, and the Hongshan Evening Post were all given warnings and fines. The story is still available here: http://video.sina.com.cn/p/ent/y/2014-12-01/093264316027.html
- December 2014: Southern Metropolis Daily reporter Wang Xing found himself in considerably more trouble for writing a story released via Weibo saying that a female official in Henan had killed herself three months prior, but that there had been no official statement to date. The reporter is said to have failed to fully investigate, not contacting the official’s family, workplace or hospital in writing the story. For this he was fired and has been barred from working as a news reporter or editor for 5 years. The story is still available here http://bbs.oeeee.com/thread-17359940-1-1.html
- January 9, 2015: The China Times (华夏时报) was fined for an inaccurate report saying that a retired deputy general-manager of the China Southern Airlines Group had been taken down in the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, and that the scandal was still entangling many of its major departments. The paper and reporter were given warnings and fined 20,000 and 2000 yuan respectively. The story can still be found here: http://finance.qq.com/a/20150109/053308.htm
- January 13, 2015 the Southern Metropolis Daily ran a story online, and on its’ microblog about a Nanjing women who attempted suicide by jumping naked into the river, and the lack of respect shown the man who rescued her. It turns out that the story was actually a fictitious amalgam of two different events from different locations. The papers reposting the story were given warnings and fines, and Southern Metropolis Daily was made to remove the personnel responsible from reporting and editing positions. Story still available here: http://www.aiweibang.com/yuedu/news/10111832.html
- June 12, 2015: The Xiaoxiang Morning Herald’s erroneous report of a man jumping to his death from the 22nd floor after losing a fortune in the stock market resulted in public criticism, compulsory transfer of personnel from news and editorial jobs, and fines. The paper is said to have failed to verify the story with the deceased’s family and to have falsely stated that the police had reached a conclusion that there was no foul play involved. Story is still available here: http://www.xxcb.cn/event/changsha/2015-06-12/8992704.html
Some of the stories above are amusing and some of the punishments relatively minor, but there is no question that the working environment for reporters in China has become more restrictive. New rules for stories shared on public microblog accounts, for correcting online news sources, and aggressively criminalizing the spreading of false information and defamation are only a few examples.
Most recently, the arrest and subsequent televised confession of Caijing’s Wang Xiaolu, has shown that even those at the most established institutions are not beyond the reach of penalties. While his case is still being investigated, it is likely he will be charged under article 181 of the Criminal Law, prohibiting the intentional fabrication and dissemination of stories that negatively impact the stock market.
The real issue is the extent to which journalists are reasonably able to rely on their own investigations and sources in sharing information with the public, without fear of reprisals. There is room for discussion in any society about the extent to which the outright fabrication of stories should be addressed by professional penalties, administrative regulations, or even criminal punishment where it amounts to defamation or calls to other imminent lawlessness. Here however, we see organizations fined and careers ended for relying on sources that ultimately proved incorrect- sometimes those sources were other news organizations, such as where a story was reposted from another news portal. This goes far beyond considering whether a reporter intentionally, or even knowingly, passed along a fake story, and begins to hold reporters responsible for the ultimate ‘truth’ of their statements.
Many of the examples released do discuss the failure of the reporters to make any inquiry at all into the veracity of online materials. In many cases, however the reasonableness of reliance on a source is much less clear, and the emphasis in releasing sample cases should be on developing such a standard rather than on the punishments.