The case of Chinese journalist Chen Yongzhou has highlighted the problem of corruption in the country's media, which also struggles with tight censorship. Companies, it seems, can buy the kind of coverage they need.
Journalists are arrested now and then in China. That is nothing new. But there is something different about the case of Chen Yongzhou, who was taken in by authorities on October 18 this year. Chen worked for the southern Chinese newspaper, the "New Express" in which he published a series of 15 articles about China's second-largest construction equipment company Zoomlion.
They were critical articles in which he wrote about the company's financial irregularities and unlawful bookkeeping. After publication of the series, the company's stocks plunged - very much to the dismay of the provincial government of Hunan, one of the company's shareholders.
Chen was arrested in Hunan. Curiously, his newspaper published a front-page article calling on the government to release him just five days later. There were a lot of people speaking out in support of him - something which is also not seen very often in China. But the story took an unexpected turn on October 26, when Chen appeared with a shaved head and wearing an inmate's uniform in an interview with the central Chinese station CCTV.
In it, he said he had been asked to write the articles and had received money for doing so. Some of the material he used in his articles, he "admitted," had been given to him by a third party and the rest of the story had been made up by himself. After the interview, the "New Express" issued a front-page apology to its readers.
Whether Chen had been commissioned to portray Zoomlion in a bad light or whether the admission of guilt in his televised interview was the result of massive pressure and intimidation, the case has brought to light the dark side of Chinese journalism - the corruption among reporters and editors.
Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism in Beijing, told DW that corruption in China's media sector has come as a great disappointment to the Chinese people and damaged their trust and support.
Zhan has studied the problem of corruption in Chinese media for years. He has repeatedly called on journalists to refrain from accepting so-called red envelopes as bribes. Such envelopes, which traditionally contain money and are given as gifts - usually for Chinese New Year - are regularly handed out at company press conferences to guarantee positive coverage. This has inspired con artists to forge press passes and go to such gatherings for the sole purpose of receiving red envelopes.
Zhan told DW that whether or not Chen Yongzhou had been bribed to write his reports was a question that had to be clarified in a court of law. He admitted, though, that the case brought light to the lack of ethics in China's media. Accepting red envelopes and writing positive reports as a form of covert advertising was a widespread phenomenon. "It is all part of the corruption in society," according to Zhan.
"Clean" journalists harassed
In his blog, "Southern Weekly" journalist Chai Huiqun confirms that red envelopes are a part of everyday work life for people in the media. He goes as far as to write that it is uncommon to attend a press conference without receiving a "donation." If a journalist declines to take the money, however, he or she is often harassed by co-workers. "For some, these red envelopes are the main income source," according to Chai.
But bribing people for positive reports is one thing. Journalists also receive hush money. In the case of mining accidents, for example, journalists travel by the dozen to the scene - not to report, but instead to collect money from the mine owners for keeping quiet about it.
In the year 2008, ten journalists are said to have received around 250,000 euros for not reporting about a mining accident in the province of Hebei in which 34 people died. A year later, the journalist Dai Xiaojun took pictures of a long line of journalists at the scene of a mine accident. They were all standing there to receive hush money. This caused a wave of outrage - albeit a short one - in the media. Sixty people were punished for this, including real and fake reporters.
Ethics of journalism
Agnès Gaudu is an editor working for the Chinese language section of the French weekly "Courrier International." From 2011 to 2012, she taught communications and design at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. Talking to DW, she explained that low incomes and poor work ethics were the foremost reasons Chinese journalists were prone to let themselves be bribed. And the main reason for this, according to Gaudu, is because China's journalists do not have independent working conditions; they are paid to represent either state or business interests. This, she says, is the reason there is no respect for the ethics of journalism.