Watchdog journalism vs. shady land deals


Anonymous complaints will be recorded.

From this week’s China Youth Daily comes a report of the cover-up of an illegal land sale in a village in Henan. It starts out with the all-too-familiar story of villagers’ land being sold out from under them by a private individual who had the full cooperation of the local government, but as it develops it touches on privacy issues, the rights of petitioners, and the use of the “fake reporter” bogeyman to obstruct watchdog journalism.

In 2000, nineteen households in Jiaxian County, Henan, signed a contract leasing their farmland rights to a fuel company through 2012. For five years, they were able to collect rent from the gas station, but when they tried to collect in 2006, they were informed that the land had been sold outright by Zhao Erxian, the neighborhood leader. It was later revealed that Zhao had been paid 1.9 million yuan for the land, and that the local tax bureau had collected 132,362 yuan in tax revenue. Further records showed that other local government departments were fully aware of the land transfer.

You can guess what happened next: the villagers were given the runaround by the various offices they contacted, while government agencies filed supplemental paperwork to legitimize the sale. Finally, on 30 July this year, the provincial Land and Resources Department concluded that “the paperwork is complete and the procedure was legal.”

It was what happened afterward that caught the attention of the domestic media: when the villagers petitioned the government to review their case, they discovered that someone had publicized their names and their complaint for all to see:

On the afternoon of 23 July, 2007, at the request of investigators from the Henan Land and Resources Department and the Pingdingshan Land and Resources Bureau, Yao Guangliang and others wrote a Letter of Complaint, reporting the illegal sale of and damage to farmland by Zhao Erxian. They delivered this letter into the hands of He Shaohua, who was in charge of the Legal Unit at the Jiaxian County Land and Resources Bureau.

He Shaohua asked the six villagers to sign their names before he would accept the case. Yao and the other five villagers signed their names, and Yao wrote his mobile phone number on the complaint letter. With the villagers looking on, a woman in the office took the letter to a vice-director, who signed it, and then returned it to He Shaohua.

On the afternoon of 24 July, Zhao Erxian brought seven or eight people to Yao’s house to yell at him. Afterward, Yao was surprised to discover that the letter of complaint that he had given to He Shaohua the day before had been tacked up onto telephone poles lining the village’s main road.

Yao then went to the Jiaxian Land and Resources Bureau. He Shaohua adamantly denied that he had leaked anything, and he claimed that the letter of complaint had been sent to the land office in Chengguanzhen. Yao and the others went immediately to the Chengguangzhen land office, which also adamantly denied that the letter had been leaked from their hands. Yao Guangliang then went to the Jiaxian Party Discipline and Inspection Committee Petition Office to request that an investigation be made and that He Shaohua be punished for making a signed letter of complaint public.

Two months later, the Discipline and Inspection Committee replied that it had completed its investigation, but it refused to disclose the results.

On 13 November, the day after the CYD reporter visited Jiaxian, the county Political and Judiciary Committee set up a team to investigate the problem with Zhao Erxian. On 18 November, the Chengguanzhen government selected four village representatives to meet with Zhao Erxian and the fuel company; at the meeting, the village representatives refused to agree to the construction of a gas station.

Liu Wanyong, the CYD investigative journalist who wrote this report, had a devil of a time getting answers from the government. In a sidebar article, he wrote about his experiences with officials in Jiaxian:

“We don’t do interviews”

by Liu Wanyong / CYD

Since October, 2006, Yao Guangliang and other inhabitants of #6 Dongzhongxin Road in the town of Chengguanzhen, Jiaxian County, Henan Province, have gone back and forth between the Chengguanzhen town government, the county Land and Resources Bureau, and the county party Discipline and Inspection Committee. They have seen the unbending attitude of the county party leadership and the evasion and buck-passing of government workers. For more than one year, they have been unable to find a solution to their problems.

On 12 November, 2007, this reporter took a visit to Jiaxian and personally witnessed the attitude of government workers toward Yao Guangliang and the other villagers.

On the morning of 12 November, the reporter went to the office of the Jiaxian County Land and Resources Bureau, where he displayed his press card and expressed his desire for an interview. The office staffer said, “Welcome. Please take a seat, and I’ll give you a document to study.”

A document issue by the County Publicity Department was put in front of the reporter. The document said that in order to strengthen propaganda work in journalism, all reporters visiting Jiaxian, whether they are engaged in propaganda reports or in watchdog journalism [舆论监督, aka “supervision by public opinion”], must report to the County Publicity Department. Reporters conducting interviews must produce their press card, a letter of introduction, and their work certificate.

The reporter explained that GAPP rules state that a press card is proof of identity for journalists engaged in news-gathering, and that there is no need to show a letter of introduction or work certificate.

The Bureau worker said, “This rule is from the County Publicity Department: without those three certificates, we cannot accept interviews. You can have the publicity department write you a letter of introduction.”

The Jiaxian County Party Committee is situated across the road from the Land and Resources Bureau. There, the reporter found Li Zhaofeng, head of the Publicity Department’s News Office. Li was very friendly, but he also asked to see three certificates before he would arrange an interview.

The reporter expressed his disbelief and explained that if his identity as a journalist was in doubt, it could be checked out on the GAPP website. Li said, “We held a meeting to inform everyone under us that three certificates are required. You don’t have them all, so you’ll find it hard to do your work.”

Li Zhaofeng explained that requiring a press card, letter of introduction, and work certificate for interviews was a long-established rule handed down from above; experienced reporters ought to be aware of this. He also inquired, “Why is China Youth Daily concerned with land issues? You all ought to have your own area of emphasis.”

Then the reporter and Yao Guangliang went to the Jiaxian Discipline and Inspection Committee Petition Office together. A staffer named Zhao received the reporter and explained that the Discipline and Inspection Commission had already conducted an investigation into He Zhaohua of the Land and Resources Department, and the release of the real names of the people who had filed complaints; he had “heard tell” that the Bureau had given He an administrative warning as punishment. The report of the investigation was in the office file, but “he was not responsible for that matter, and the leaders were off in the countryside.”

The staffer advised the reporter to continue his search at the Jiaxian Land and Resources Bureau, and said that he could accompany him. “When you reveal who you are, you’ll definitely be able to find it out.”

The reporter left happily, and the three individuals walked across the street toward the Land and Resources Bureau. When they had just about reached the door, [Zhao] suddenly stopped and said, “I’d better not go. The last time this happened, I was criticized by the leadership. You’d better go to the Publicity Department, or else just go up by yourself.”

So the reporter could do nothing but accompany Yao Guangliang to the third-floor office of Huang Jianxun, secretary of Discipline and Inspection at the Land and Resources Bureau. Huang greeted them warmly and answered them immediately, “The results of handling that affair are in the second floor archives. Look for the case number and you’ll find it.”

The reporter asked, “Do you need to give the archives a call first?”

Straight away, Huang said, “Nope!”

The reporter and Yao Guangliang hurried to the second floor. They entered the room closest to the stairway to ask where the archives were. An employee said, “The archives? The fifth floor!”

Was a leader of the Land and Resources Bureau unsure of whether the archives were on the second floor or the fifth floor? The reporter immediately returned to the third-floor office of the secretary of Discipline and Inspection, but the office door was locked, as was the security door.

The reporter suggested waiting by the stairwell, but Yao Guangliang said: “There’s no point. He’s gone—there’s a another stairwell over there.”

At 3pm, the reporter and Yao Guangliang went once again to the Jiaxian Land and Resources Bureau, where they ran into Wang Yunqi, who was in charge of the petition office. Yao asked him hesitantly, “Director Wang, how are things with the He Shaohua investigation?”

Vice-director Wang answered haughtily: “Ask the Discipline and Inspection Committee. It’s none of my business!”

“The Discipline and Inspection Committee said to look for you.”

“Can I be responsible for all that stuff?”

Then the reporter and Yao Guangliang went to find Ji Lujun, vice-secretary of the Jiaxian Party Political and Judiciary Committee. Yao said that vice-secretary Jin was responsible for resolving the problems they brought up.

Jin was evidently displeased at Yao bringing a reporter to talk to him; he asked Yao to speak with him privately in another office.

Then the reporter heard Jin say, “What do you want to bring a reporter here for? If you keep it up, I won’t be held responsible!”

After a while, Yao Guangliang emerged from the office and said uneasily, “He’s really angry!”

All throughout the day on 12 November, the reporter to the Land and Resources Bureau several times but was unable to find He Shaohua. At 3:30pm, he was able to connect to He’s mobile phone, and he explained his desire to conduct an interview.

He Shaohua said, “You need to find a leader before you do an interview. I don’t do interviews.”

The reporter asked, “Was it you who handled Yao Guangliang’s complaint?”

He said, “I don’t know!” and then hung up.

Yao Guangliang told the reporter, “Our demands aren’t very high. Why is it so difficult to get them dealt with? In the past, I didn’t even know where the Land Bureau was, but now I am closely acquainted with lots of departments. But what’s the use? There’s no one to solve our problems!”

Liu Wanyong was more fortunate than a reporter in another recent episode in Henan in which the fake journalists were used an excuse to give a real journalist the brush-off:

“Defending against fake reporters” becomes an excuse to obstruct watchdog journalism

by Xu Zhaorong / Xinhua

Before Journalists’ Day this year, a memo from GAPP guaranteeing the legal rights of journalists to conduct interviews was issued. It stated, “No organization or individual may obstruct or interfere with journalists’ efforts to legally obtain interviews.” The report from the 17th Party Congress even more clearly stressed the need to “ensure the people’s right to know, to participate, to express, and to supervise,” and to “extend the use of supervision by public opinion and enhance the strength and effectiveness of such supervision” in accordance with the law. As this harmonious sound was ringing in our ears, there came news from Yichuan, Henan, that a journalist with the Economic Information Daily had been obstructed in the course of his interview; his equipment was seized and he was beaten.

The reason that Yichuan Tianlong Abrasives and Refractories gave for disrupting the interviews: “there are lots of bogus journalists these days.” Actually, the Economic Information Daily reporter displayed a press card at the first interview, but it was confiscated; when he was beaten and his camera was seized during an interview at the company the following day, it was after the local police and propaganda department had already been called out. It is apparent that the company’s “defense against fakes” is just an excused to “reject the genuine.”

Yichuan Tianlong is a serious polluter. In 2005, governments of Henan Province and Luoyang City ordered it to cease operations. But production has continued to this day, and pollution is the same as ever. Even more unbelievable is that when the Economic Information Daily reporter arrived at the company on the 13th, he was surrounded by company employees, and it took the arrival of police and the propaganda department to extract him. But when he returned the following day, the company was still spewing out pollution, and its means of obstructing his interviews had been upgraded to include stealing his camera and beating him in a frenzy. It is a pretty rare thing for a company to ignore watchdog journalism and “orders” from city and provincial oversight agencies in this manner. After the Economic Information Daily reporter’s press card was confiscated, he dialed the emergency hotline 110 five times before police were finally sent out.

A few days ago, the national Anti-Pornography and Anti-Piracy Office announced the case of a bogus reporter who engaged in a long-term scam; the fake reporter involved in the case said that before every one of his “interviews,” he contacted the propaganda department and other government offices, and every time he was warmly received. No one ever doubted his identity. But now there is this other incident in Henan in which a reporter has been obstructed and beaten in the course of legal news-gathering. In one case, a reporter is “warmly received”; in another, a reporter is “treated icily,” or even “greeted with fists.” The two situations seem vastly different, but they are actually essentially identical: they both exist to cover up problems.

What happened in Yichuan demonstrates that there is a tacit understanding between certain local people and businesses that are in violation of the law. Since they permit businesses to continue polluting over the long term, these people naturally will not welcome watchdog journalism, nor will they find anything surprising about the mess following the obstruction of a reporter’s news-gathering. To a certain degree, this exposes a core reason as to why it is so difficult right now to pursue pollution reduction and power conservation.

Bogus journalists should be prevented from profiting off of interviews and watchdog journalism, but it is even more necessary to treat those journalists legally engaged in news-gathering properly. We must not permit “defense against fakes” to be used an excuse to obstruct watchdog journalism.

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