Chinese lawmakers are reportedly divided on a controversial proposed provision that would fine media agencies if they breach government regulations when reporting on emergency situations. The provision has been included into a draft law on emergency management currently being deliberated.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) on Monday afternoon held a small-session discussion to review the draft law on emergency management, which was submitted to the legislature last Saturday for first round hearing.
The drafting of the law began in 2003.
The draft law provides: "News media that irregularly reports the development and handling of emergencies without authorization or that releases fraudulent reports will be fined between 50,000 yuan (or US$6,250) and 100,000 yuan, if the reports lead to serious consequences."
Emergencies are defined as industrial accidents, natural disasters, and health and public security crises.
Fang Xin, an NPC lawmaker, said the article needs a second consideration, especially since the draft fails to note what regulations govern media reports.
"In fact, once emergencies occur, it is usually the reporter's perseverance that lays bare the truth and encourages the government to take proper action," Fang said.
He Ken, another NPC lawmaker, said that he disagreed with writing into law that media who released the correct information could face heavy fines just because it was not authorized to do so.
"The journalism circle has its own rules," He said, adding that "media supervision", which he considered "very important", was "not strong enough" in China.
But he approved of the law that would result in reporters being fined for fabricating news stories.
Since 2003, China's media has enjoyed more freedom in writing news stories, including those relating to major emergencies. Media can be disciplined for delaying the disclosure of, for example, the death tolls of major industrial accidents.
An official in the Legislative Office under the State Council told Xinhua that the article was written into the draft after careful consultation with many experts, and it was not aimed at "controlling the media".
"The focus is on banning the release of false or biased news reports," said Li Yuede. "If the report does not contain detailed information, it would cause public concern."
Li's opinion was shared by other NPC lawmakers. Zheng Gongcheng, NPC lawmaker and a professor in human resources management, said the law was needed to guarantee objective reporting.
"Media should take an active role in handling emergencies, but their reporting should always be unbiased and based on the facts," Zheng said.
In fact, the draft law stipulates penalties, including those for the failure on the part of local government officials to announce emergencies in a timely manner, and if they are found guilty of trying to cover up accidents.
Former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang was sacked in 2003 for the SARS cover-up, an indication that the government was trying to instill transparency in media reporting.
"Information flow is very important in times of crisis," said Fang, adding that the draft appears self-contradictory in some way as it demands transparency on the one hand, and makes rules that seemingly put limits on media reporting on the other.
He suggested adding one more chapter in the draft so as to establish an unblocked channel of information between the government, media, and the public.
Several other lawmakers made similar suggestions, according to the summary report of the panel discussion released by the NPC late on Monday.
Lawmakers with the law's drafting body said they will consider amending the draft based on the suggestions and opinions put forward.
A draft law typically comes into effect after three rounds of legislative hearings. The Standing Committee of the NPC meets every two months to conduct such hearings.
(Xinhua News Agency June 27, 2006)