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INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS -
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Hong Kong journalists slam China's plans to restrict media

Posted in the database on Tuesday, June 27th, 2006 @ 18:47:49 MST (1016 views)
from AFP  

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The Hong Kong Journalists Association has condemned China's plans to tighten controls on the mainland's media, with the introduction of fines for reporting unauthorised information.

The standing committee of China's Parliament is considering a bill on how the Government responds to emergencies such as industrial accidents, natural disasters or health and social crises.

The draft law says media outlets which breach China's vague censorship rules by reporting such incidents without approval may be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan ($8,500-$17,000).

"[We] strongly protest the law, which represents a serious setback for the Chinese media freedom... depriving the rights of people who want to know the facts," the association's chairwoman Cheung Ping-ling said.

She said in a statement that coverage of emergencies was an important part of news reporting, and that she feared the law would be used as a tool to censor the media.

"We strongly oppose any laws that would damage media freedom and demand the Chinese authorities to cancel immediately its plans to introduce the law," she said.

The law would not affect reporting on Hong Kong, a territory which is governed by separate legislation.

The draft legislation stresses that local governments in China should disseminate information on emergencies in a timely manner, but not if the reports would affect the handling of a crisis.

The official Xinhua news agency said the decision to introduce the law was made because of errors in handling the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

SARS originated in China and the nation was widely condemned for initially covering up the disease, enabling the virus to spread more easily.

The planned law comes against the backdrop of what foreign rights and media groups have described as a sustained media crackdown, including the jailing of Chinese journalists who have exposed scandals involving government officials.

International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said last month that at least 32 journalists were in prison in China as of early this year.

It brands the communist rulers as one of the world's "enemies" of the Internet.

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China Weighs Fines for Reports on 'Sudden Events'

By JOSEPH KAHN
The New York Times

Chinese media outlets will be fined up to $12,500 each time they report on "sudden events" without prior authorization from government officials, according to a draft law under review by the Communist Party-controlled legislature.

The law, revealed today in most state-run newspapers, would give government officials a powerful new tool to restrict coverage of mass outbreaks of disease, riots, strikes, accidents and other events that the authorities prefer to keep secret. Officials in charge of propaganda already exercise considerable sway over the Chinese media, but their power tends to be informal, not codified in law.

More than 100 million Chinese have access to the Internet, and hundreds of commercially driven newspapers, magazines and television stations provide a much wider selection of news and information than was available in the recent past. As a result, Chinese authorities have also sought fresh ways to curtail reporting on topics and events they consider harmful to social and political stability.

Editors and journalists say they receive constant bulletins from the Propaganda Department forbidding reporting on an ever-expanding list of taboo topics, including "sudden events." But a few leading newspapers and magazines occasionally defy such informal edicts. They may find it more costly to ignore the rules if they risked being assessed financial penalties.

The draft, under consideration by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was described in outline by newspapers today.

It says that newspapers, magazines, news Web sites and television stations should face fines ranging from $6,250 to $12,500 each time they publish information about a sudden event "without authorization" or publish "fake news" about such events.

While state media did not offer a definition of "sudden events," in the past they have included natural disasters, major accidents, public health or social safety incidents.

Journalists say local authorities are likely to interpret the law broadly, giving officials leeway to restrict coverage of any social and political disturbance that they consider embarrassing, like demonstrations over land seizures, environmental pollution or corruption.

Last fall, the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets removed some information about natural disasters, including the death toll, from a list of topics that government agencies had the power to treat as official secrets. The move was viewed positively at the time as an attempt to provide the public with more timely and accurate information about such disasters.

The declassification came after central and local government authorities initially covered up the SARS respiratory epidemic in 2003. Health authorities later acknowledged that the cover-up made the SARS outbreak more severe.

The new law would appear to undercut the spirit of that revision, forcing journalists and editors to seek prior approval before writing about disease outbreaks.

"The way the draft law stands now it could give too much power to local officials to determine that someone has violated the law," said Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at People's University in Beijing.

Mr. Yu said he hoped the legislature would review the draft and make its terms "much more specific" to avoid heavy new restrictions on media freedom.

Others suggested that the impact on the press might be mixed.

The new law could make it easier to punish media outlets for even routine reporting. But it also sets a limit on the fine that can be accessed for each violation. Major media outlets could clearly afford to risk a fine if they felt the value of the news in question warranted coverage.

Moreover, the fines could presumably be challenged in court, making them a more active forum in the future for deciding the limits of media controls in the country, a legal expert said.

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