Heavy sentence of journalist who took hush money raises questions

The China Daily and other prominent media outlets have focused on the recent case of journalist Li Junqi who received a 16-year jail sentencing for taking hush money when reporting on a coal mining disaster that killed 34 people in Hebei. Li’s lawyer said that his client did not take the bribes, and he plans to appeal. Li was one of ten journalists and over 48 Party and government officials who were involved.

Although journalists should maintain professional ethics, and Li’s behavior, if the allegations prove to be true, is clearly unethical, yet two recent media reports shed light on some of the institutional and structural reasons that make the paying of hush money to be such a widespread practice and put this incident into perspective.

The first article shows that many rural county governments are filled with corruption, and that it is almost impossible for any individual official to stay clean. Graeme Smith, a scholar at the University of Technology Sydney, spent over four years researching a rural county in Anhui province for his article Political Machinations in a Rural County published in the China Journal, and what he found was a complex and layered network of corruption throughout the county:

The perpetrators of corruption are rarely morally good or bad. Rather, they are playing by the unwritten rules of a system that makes them utterly dependent on the patronage of those higher up the tree - and oblivious to the needs of those below.

In rural counties, the Party Secretary is also particularly powerful:

Within… (the) county, the Communist Party secretary is king. He has the final say in all personnel decisions and the interpretation of central government policy. He runs the bureaucracy like a giant franchise system.

Under this system in which corruption is a regular part of government affairs, and as in this coalmining disaster case − in which the powerful county Party Secretary and other officials were directly involved in bribing the journalists − one might question to what extent an individual journalist would feel at liberty to disobey the Party secretary’s orders and publishing information about the coal mining disaster without “proper” authorization.

Similarly, a recent Global Times article shows that bribery is not only rife in political circles, but in journalistic circles as well. In a recent conference at Beijing Foreign Studies University, reporters from around the nation discussed the issue of bribery. There was a lot of debate about journalists taking “food coupon news” – writing puff pieces for companies or government departments. There was controversy about the whether there was a difference in taking money to write positive news stories on the one hand, and taking hush money to cover up negative events that had already happened on the other hand. However, there was virtual universal recognition that bribery and the giving of hong bao’s (red packets filled with cash) was widespread in China today.

Government departments, public relations companies and owners of private business operations all routinely hand out hong bao – red envelopes – to journalists seeking favorable coverage.

So-called "transport fees" can range from a 50-yuan note for a local newspaper reporter to thousands of yuan for a top TV reporter. Hush fees go even higher – even tens of thousands of yuan.

"Handing out red envelopes in the name of 'transport fees' to Chinese journalists is a hidden rule here," said Wang Jingqi from Pegasus Communications, a Daniel J Edelman Company in Beijing.

While none of this background information should excuse or justify the behavior of corrupt journalists and government officials, it does raise questions about whether sentencing a particular journalist for such an excessive amount of time will fix this systematic problem, or whether it’s just a game of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey”.

In any case, honestly and accurately reporting mining disasters after the fact won’t fundamentally alter the appalling safety record in Chinese mines. Only by giving workers a larger say in their production and workplace safety issues will the problems start to see a fundamental change in nature.
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