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實地采訪記者處于權力和暴力的威脅

Bad news for the media messengers

Journalists in the field are getting badly banged up these days

Tom Plate

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I do not take the worldwide war on the news media personally. Except for the menacing emails from space-station cyberspace, it has been a bit of time since anyone has threatened me -- much less glared at me with looks that kill or actually shot at me with bullets meant to do just that. Columnists have a relatively soft life: Getting shown a bad table at a good restaurant with lots of people watching and mocking you is usually about the biggest risk we run.

But this is not the fate of the brave correspondent out there in the field of battle. It is these intrepid messengers -- those brave souls out in the cold who actually bring in the bad news -- who are really getting badly banged up these days.

China probably leads the roughhouse league, though there's plenty of competition for that distinction. But when the People's Republic of China is not intimidating journalists, it's jailing them. One major offense by media personnel apparently includes the dissemination of embarrassing information -- we call this "news," but in Beijing, officials view news with alarm. They call it "sudden events" and they don't like them reported too -- well -- suddenly. Another big offense is when a journalist gets publicly acquitted by an otherwise supine Chinese court for leaking state secrets after the government had publicly filed just such charges.

What an embarrassment! This happened in the case of former New York Times researcher Zhao Yan. A Chinese trial court acquitted him of the leaking charges, but the authorities, not to be discouraged, dredged up an old, unrelated fraud charge to haul him back to jail. Someone's got a heavy thumb these days on the scales of justice in the People's Republic of China. (The Financial Times wins a headline prize for this one: "Beijing court acquits journalist, then jails him" -- bravo!)

China's hardly alone, of course, in the ever-popular game of ganging up on news-media personnel. Take a look at the web page of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists during the last week or so alone: In Iraq, a car bomb tears into the basement of a state-run newspaper Al-Sabah. In the Sudan, officials jail -- on absurd espionage charges -- the great Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek. In Gaza City, Israeli missile-marksmen train their sights on a Palestinian press vehicle clearly marked "Press" and blow away a pair of Palestinian cameramen.

All of this press-smashing almost makes me feel guilty about my own press-bashing of late. At a high-profile conference here on relations between media and government, I was among the lead-bashers in deploring media sins on this or that kind. Now I'm almost ashamed of myself.

To be sure, the criticisms from the two dozen or so assembled media and government experts from the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand were arguably on the mark. It was easy to cite the usual array of mortal media sins: sensationalism, commercialism and -- oh, yes -- liberalism.

But while we were all lunching and feasting and enjoying the media and government conference organized by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, the actually-working press was getting car-bombed, rocket-bombed and/or arrested. (Full disclosure time: I traveled to Australia as a guest of ANZSOG.)

It took ANZSOG's dean, meeting with me privately before I returned home, to put it all in perspective. His name is Allan Fels, the former chairman of the notorious Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). "Notorious" because under the hard-charging Fels, the ACCC actually became a consumer ally, while Fels became something of a national hero -- ranked at one point as the third most powerful political figure in Australia.

Today, as a comparatively quiet academic, Fels told me that he looks back on that period happily -- as well as gratefully. Without the support of the nation's news media, Fels accepts that his campaign on behalf of the Australian consumer would have gotten nowhere against the firepower of big business.

Rather than shoot the news media, Fels suggests, perhaps we should try to respect it, especially by caring enough for its vital role to suggest ways of improving it. To this end, the visionary ANZSOG dean has on the school's drawing board a preliminary plan to organize a conference involving key news media figures of the Asia-Pacific. This is a troubled and widely varying landscape, to be sure: You have controlled news media as well as commercial ones, with some of them operating in near war-time conditions.

It's a terribly ambitious idea for an international conference, with, to be sure, inevitable security concerns. But Fels has an almost fatal attraction for the difficult, as long as it is socially useful. Having personally witnessed the positive power of the news media when it is operating at its best -- which is to say in the public interest -- the Dean wants his school always to ask of the press: Why not the best? He knows it's much easier to light your pipe and hurl verbal grenades at the news-media, much like battlefield terrorists, ham-handed authoritarian bureaucrats and armed-chair academics do. But that's not his way -- and it shouldn't be ours.

 
 

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