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Food Won’t Be Safe Unless Journalists Are

Nation, page 16

June 20, 20011

Translated by Song Chunling 

Original article: [Chinese]

Last week, the Ministry of Health said it plans to blacklist journalists who intentionally mislead the public about health concerns. The announcement shocked the media, who argue that newspapers are crucial in uncovering health scandals and that the blacklists could be used to obstruct investigative reporters and discredit their stories. Media commentator Bei Fangshuo calls for the government to rethink its proposals.

At a conference on food additives organized by the Department of Food Safety and the Ministry of Health, spokesman, Mao Qun’an, told journalists that the ministry plans to establish a “healthy platform for reporting” and create a more “healthy media” covering health. Journalists who spread incorrect information in order to mislead will be monitored and may be blacklisted.

Mao reminded the journalists that reports on food safety are hugely influential, telling them not to harm the nation’s development by mistakes and carelessness.

As spokesman for the Ministry of Health, it’s reasonable that Mao should want journalists to stick to the facts, but that ought to be the domain of journalist ethics. The media is scared and concerned by the idea of a blacklist.

If every ministry makes its own blacklist, it will be impossible for the public to hold them to account and the central government ‘s proposal to promote public supervision of the government will be merely an empty promise. What frightens journalists is the presumption that they are to blame and that ministries are free to punish or reward them as they like. If, among existing newspapers, television channels, radio stations or websites, we want to choose some that enjoy spreading false information and misleading the public and label them as “unhealthy”, then we need to be very clear about the criteria. Otherwise, it’s not hard to imagine that the category will be used to block honest reporting of problems with food safety.

It’s well known that the main reason for problems with food safety is the aggressive cost cuts by businesses in search of greater profits, but the lack of public supervision is also a factor. The Ministry of Health’s planned blacklist shifts the responsibility for problems onto the media. It is as though the problems don’t originate within the food industry but because of the media.

This can hardly be the Ministry of Health’s intention and the blacklist is unlikely ever to appear, but we ought to take note of the relationship between public authorities and the media.

Recently, there have recently been a series of cases in which public authorities threatened the media. The most shocking occasion was when a county party secretary sent someone to Beijing to snatch a journalist’s Dictaphone. These cases reflect public authorities’ prejudices against the media. However these prejudices are being challenged as the media’s role in society grows and the authorities need a new understanding of the media – it’s society’s immune system, not its illness. As one discipline inspection commission secretary said before he was sentenced to death, “the media is the best guard against corruption.”

When a sick man keeps complaining about his immune system instead of going to hospital, his illness can’t be cured. Likewise, when journalists are not safe, the safety of food and even society cannot be guaranteed.

This article has been reworded and edited by Will Bland.

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