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China turns a page on independent journalism

For years, there hasn't been much nice said about Chinese journalists. Most were seen as either government mouthpieces or bribe-taking corporate shills. But the reputation of China's news media is on the rise lately after a series of incidents in which reporters refused to back down in the face of intimidation, sticking to their stories even if it meant getting beaten or jailed.

The most dramatic case involves Qiu Ziming, a 28-year-old investigative reporter in the Shanghai bureau of the Economic Observer newspaper, one of China's most independent-minded publications.

In June, Mr. Qiu filed a series of articles that pointed to insider training at Kan Specialty Materials, a high-profile firm in eastern Zhejiang province that manufactures paper and batteries. The articles outlined how the company had allegedly used its political connections to acquire state property worth a reported 600 million yuan ($91-million) for just 890,000 yuan.

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The company's outraged directors responded by showing just how much political clout they had. At the request of Kan Specialty Materials, a nationwide arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Qiu on the charge that he had maliciously damaged the company's reputation.

What Kan Specialty Materials hadn't been banking on was the emerging sense of kinship and defiance in China's long-quiescent news media. When Mr. Qiu refused to hand himself over and instead went on the lam, he immediately became China's most famous scribe-on-the-run, turned into a free speech hero by his fellow journalists.

"I strongly support [the editors]of Economic Observer! And I salute all media people with conscience!" wrote someone who gave his name as Hefei on the sina.com Web portal. It was a widespread sentiment. An online survey conducted by sina.com found that 89 per cent of the 116,541 respondents wanted to see the warrant for Mr. Qiu's arrest revoked.

Though Kan Specialty Materials is still pursuing its case, Zhejiang police eventually relented and withdrew the warrant on the grounds there was not enough evidence. The police even issued a face-to-face apology to Mr. Qiu, who told local media that he hadn't slept for days because of the warrant.

"The public supported us, I think, because [Mr. Qiu]was only a journalist doing what he was supposed to be doing, and he met with such disaster," said Guo Hongchao, a senior editor at the Economic Observer. "The case illustrates that the media and journalists are actually quite fragile [in China] I think most journalists - though not all - are working hard for the people's right to information."

In the wake of Mr. Qiu's victory, a string of similar cases has come to light exposing the dangers Chinese journalists face while doing their jobs. Last Wednesday, family members of two journalists involved in exposing the pollution of a major river - and subsequent attempts to hush the story up with bribes - by Zijin Mining Corp., China's biggest publicly traded gold producer, were involved in mysterious car accidents.

Two days later, the offices of the Shanghai-based National Business Daily were stormed by employees of shampoo-maker BaWang International Group Holding Ltd. shortly after the newspaper reported that Bawang shampoos contained a cancer-causing chemical. Such brute intimidation of journalists is not uncommon in China. What was unusual was the way the normally docile Chinese media pushed back by publicizing accounts of the attacks on front pages and newscasts around the country.

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China's newspapers and television stations - while all still subject to official censorship - have shown increasing independence in recent years, led by a trio of feisty newspapers owned by the Southern Media Group, a Guangdong-based publisher that recently tried to purchase Newsweek magazine. While news outlets must still follow old-fashioned political directives regarding anything to do with "sensitive" topics such as Tibet, Taiwan and the country's one-party political system, articles exposing corruption by businesses or low-ranking government officials is now standard fare in newspapers and newscasts.

In the wake of Mr. Qiu's case, the official body that oversees the Chinese media, the General Administration of Press and Publication, weighed in with a statement seen by some as conditionally supportive of investigative journalism.

"Media organizations have the right to know, interview, publish, criticize and supervise issues related to national and public interests," read the official statement, which was carried on the front page of the official China Daily newspaper. "Normal and legal newsgathering activities by media organizations and their reporters and editors are protected by law," it added.

However, Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics, said the GAPP statement was as notable for what it didn't say as for what it did. The silent message, he said, was that "the media can carry out its functions only so long as certain no-go areas are respected."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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