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The rotten red envelope

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:19 January 05 2010]
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By Xu Donghuan

The heated discussion almost completely derailed the meeting and tested moderators to the limits.

It was a chilly Saturday morning when journalists, scholars and students gathered for a workshop on media ethics and social responsibilities in a conference hall at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The whole bribe – "red envelope" – kerfuffle kicked off in response to Liu Yiran, 30-year-old news reporter for Gansu Provincial Television.

Choking back tears, she shared her experiences covering the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 in southern Gansu Province, 200 kilometers north of the Wenchuan county epicenter.

"I was the only woman among two camera crews sent from our station," she said. "We slept in an army camp for over two months.

"I produced 20 in-depth news reports. I was paid 100 yuan for each one."

When she returned home, Liu was hospitalized for two weeks.

"I had to cover the 6,000- yuan medical bill myself," she said.

Demand

The debate exploded from the floor in the question-and-answer session on the theme of paid news and corruption among journalists.

One after another, participants voiced their concern for the precarious livelihood of the young journalists, especially those working in inland and remote areas.

"I hope the government can intervene and think of a way to help raise the income of journalists,"said Liu Fang, a second-year student at a graduate journalism program of Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Liu Yiran next recalled her seven straight hours covering a poisonous gas leak at a chemical plant. Despite suffering a severe headache and numbness in the mouth, she was asked to stay for live coverage by China Central Television.

"We have no subsidies to pay for these health hazard stories," she said in a telephone interview after the workshop. Liu's salary is 2,000 yuan a month after tax. The average GDP per head of Lanzhou residents is 2,130 yuan per month last year.

"I have to work extremely hard to support myself. I also need to use my own money to maintain good relations with my sources for exclusive stories," she said.

"If a company wants to offer me a red envelope with a couple of hundred yuan in cash for me to write a promotional story, I don't see why I should refuse it."

"It's harmless and hurts nobody."

Most important of all, Liu Yiran argued, a soft red envelope is very different from a "hush fee", implying she would never accept that kind of a bribe.

Liu's experience, common among journalists from the poorer inland areas of China, is less known in big cities where media outlets earn better revenues from advertising and stronger government financial backing.

"The case of Liu is certainly an isolated and extreme example among journalists across China," claimed Chen Lidan, professor of media studies in the School of Journalism under Renmin University of China in Beijing. "We cannot use it to justify journalists taking bribes."

Paid news, also dubbed "food coupon news", is hardly a new phenomenon in Chinese journalism. Hard evidence is hard to come by, but anecdotes within the industry suggest a rising trend.

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