China's "Fake News" Campaign

Any campaign against "fake news" in China ought to be a welcome sign that the country's media, which sometimes is irresponsible, occasionally open to bribery and routinely unprofessional, is being cleaned up.

But the campaign launched by the government on Feb. 15 against fake news is being met with deep concern among journalists. As with much that happens in China, it may have little to do with false or inaccurate reporting and more to do with a crackdown on media freedom. And, from comments made during the crackdown, it is clear that there are fundamental differences in the way Beijing regards the media compared to the west. Beijing appears to regard the press as a component of government whereas in the west it is a counterweight.

The state-run China Central Television reported that Guangxi Daily Group has published an internal book titled "We got it wrong," listing 57 inaccurate and fake news reports printed by its publication. The book will be used in training editors and reporters, according to the report.

The report added that authorities have strengthened attempts against false news. Seminars about the topic are being held. It added that the media should adhere to objective and accurate reporting.

And while certainly journalism depends for its credibility on accuracy, the report quoted Zhai Weisheng, party secretary of All-China Journalist Association, as saying that in China "the media is the representative of the party and the government. Wrong reporting will affect the credibility of the government."

The General Administration of Press and Publication reprimanded six publications last October for what it characterized as untrue reporting. Journalists agree that fake news should not be tolerated, but added that they fear authorities will go further than banning fake news in their media campaign.

"It is feared that they will curb media freedom under the pretext of fake news," said Chang Ping, a well-known columnist who was recently sacked for commentary the government deemed too provocative.

Long Can, a former reporter of Chengdu Business Daily, has become a poster boy after he was sacked and several editors were fined last month for a story about a group of university students trapped on a mountain in a storm in which he wrote that authorities had made no rescue effort until one of the students contacted an uncle, reportedly a influential official.

The authorities said there is no such an influential official, and deemed the report as "fake news." Long acknowledged that he had erred in not verifying the identity of the uncle, but added that the episode actually revealed a bigger problem.

He requested to interview related authorities, he said, but all turned him down. And, he added, even if officials had accepted his request, the story may well not have gone to print because officials routinely ask editors to drop such articles out of fear of embarrassment.

"My stories may be killed simply because the officials made a phone call to newspaper editors," Long said. "Officials will use such method to stay away from consequences of their mistakes and unlawful practices. These officials do not know what is news, but they can create too many obstacles for journalists."

Some editors, Long said, have no reporting experience, but they know the importance of obeying orders.

"Under such circumstances, journalists have to put aside their independent character and their identity as intellectuals to please the leaders, or they will end up (in miserable conditions)."

Other journalists immediately asked what constitutes "fake news" – should propaganda materials disseminated by the government be considered fake?

According to the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, "fake news," or xujia xinwen, "has plagued news media in China since at least the Cultural Revolution, at which time media fabricated news to suit the political purposes of the Gang of Four. It is an extremely fuzzy term, and obviously, while it may be used by Chinese officialdom in campaigns against news regarded as unprofessional (or against party directives), could in its broadest sense (though not the official one) overlap with party propaganda itself."

Cheng Yizhong, a former journalist with the Southern Metropolis Daily, said in his microblog that People's Daily and Guangming Daily, two major mouthpieces of the Chinese government, have also presented untrue pictures.

"It is ironic that the organizations which have fabricated lies on purpose and in a large scale are now emphasizing banning fake news," he wrote. "It is like a thief asking another thief to be caught."

When Deng Yaping, a former table tennis Olympic gold medalist who is now deputy secretary of People's Daily, said in December that the paper has "never published fake news" in the past 62 years, many Internet users were quick make sarcastic criticisms against her.

"Has she used her brain to think before making such comment," one Internet user said. "She should step down for such a poor comment."