A photographer’s attempt to take a picture is blocked. Photo: CFP
News editors, who know they can't very well dig up too much dirt on local leaders without risking their jobs, often send their reporters to other regions to report on stories they know their readers want to read.
While local officials often have the power to skew the news that happens in their jurisdiction, they have little interest or means to squelch stories in their local publications that originate outside their jurisdiction.
Media watchers are now concerned about a directive from Hubei provincial government, issued early this month that appears to ban journalists from Hubei from conducting investigative reports outside the province. It demands that local media outlets "firmly grasp correct guidance of public opinion and not conduct cross-regional supervision."
It seems that the province is sending a signal to other provinces that "our reporters are not digging dirt in your province, so in return please stop yours from digging dirt in ours," Zhou Peng'an, a well-known blogger and researcher with the Development Research Center in Wuhu, Anhui Province, said on his blog.
Hubei's hard-line reputation for being tough on journalists from other jurisdictions rose to national fame when the Beijing News sent reporter Kong Pu to cover murder charges that had been laid against 21-year-old Deng Yujiao in Hubei in May 2009.
As Kong dug into the story, she found it was by no means an open-and-shut case of murder. She discovered that Deng who worked for a registered massage club that offered no hanky-panky, had been sexually assaulted. She had fought back with a small knife and ended up killing one of the three government officials who attacked her.
Although Kong must have known it was a very sensitive story, she likely never imagined she would also become part of it.
Finding comfort in company, Kong and another reporter with Southern People's Weekly visited Deng's grandmother. Without warning five men showed up and attacked the journalists and confiscated their notes.
Forced to 'explain'
The reporters were then forced to write an "explanation" that contained an admission that they did not have the authorization from the local government to conduct their investigation.
Yet, local officials couldn't hold back the story after hordes of journalists from across the country reported on the unsavory details of the murder charges against Deng.
The court eventually found that Deng had acted in self-defense and she was acquitted of the murder charge and set free.
While the sensational trial overshadowed what happened to reporter Kong, her rough treatment raised concerns about the power of local officials to prevent journalists from doing their jobs.
More than two years later, Kong is still too shaken to discuss her experience in Hubei. She declined an interview request from the Global Times, saying only that she fears making further comments might get her into trouble again.
Officials in Hubei, however, appear unmoved and unrepentant by the widespread criticisms that have been leveled at them over their treatment of journalists and the media.
Hubei governor Li Hongzhong made news after he berated a journalist and forcibly grabbed her recorder when she asked him about Deng's case during a news scrum at the 2010 National People's Congress meeting in Beijing.
Li's behavior outraged both journalists and Internet users. Several editorials asked Li to apologize publicly and he eventually said the reporter was free to talk to him if she was unhappy about the incident.
Won't stop controversies
Many in the news business say Hubei's new directive would effectively end journalists' ability to work beyond the watchful eyes of local authorities who have the power to control them. They also agree that such a measure won't stop controversies from being made public.
Li Datong, a senior editor with China Youth Daily, told the Global Times there's one main reason that regional news blackouts won't work.
"We're in the age of Internet so there is no way they can control media. They would have to abolish all the local media to stop them from competing with media outside of the province," said Li.
Professor Wang, however, laments that the rule will render journalists impotent. "A ban on cross-regional reporting will prevent reporters from conducting watchdog journalism. They'll be able to do nothing," he told the Global Times.
In the past all news media in China was backed by the government. For decades news outlets were proudly the "throat and tongue of the Party," and their goal was to "guide public opinion" along the politically correct path.
Since China reforms began three decades ago, many media outlets were required to become financially self-sufficient and this has increasingly meant producing stories that sell newspapers and attract viewers.
One of China's leading investigative journals, Southern Weekend, often reports on scandals and controversies from outside Guangdong where the paper is located.
A Southern Weekend reporter, who asked not to be named, believes his editors face pressure when it comes to reporting on stories from inside his province.
"We all know that it is not easy to do investigative reporting in Guangdong, so we leave it alone and go to other provinces," he said.
His comments seem to contradict Gaungdong officials who publicly say their province is open to investigative journalism. Wang Yang, the province's Party secretary, has encouraged the media to "supervise" local authorities. Many in the business believe Guangdong is one of the most open and progressive provinces when it comes to media restrictions.