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A real privilege
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Compared with those buying off reporters for favorable coverage, or their silence, the People's High Court of Yunnan province's idea to subject itself to media oversight is interesting.

Even more so given public institutions' fondness for secrecy.

The Yunnan high court engaged 14 reporters as "special press observers" and issued each of them a "supervisor's passport".

The "passport" holders are promised greater convenience when navigating the local court system. Courts across the province are required to notify the observers about major cases and decisions, as well as to provide assistance in the holders' work.

The observers' criticisms and suggestions regarding court work will also be taken seriously. Their opinions have been promised smooth access to all levels of the local judiciary and they have even been guaranteed official feedback.

These are real privileges. Courtrooms are rich mines of sensational news. The 14 reporters have actually been guaranteed a stable source of scoops. They will be the envy of many in our profession - after all, we are in a media market ruled increasingly by sensationalism, whether we like it or not.

We have heard plenty about the media's role as a supervisor, especially in the anti-corruption rhetoric. We have heard pleas and vows from the highest to the lowest levels of government. Yet examples like those of the Yunnan high court have been rare.

The court's initiative to expose itself to outside scrutiny, if true to its name, is worth applause.

But forgive us for some cautionary remarks. We know nothing about our 14 fellow reporters. Or why and how they were chosen.

Everything else aside, we are curious about how they reconcile the special favor with the ethics of their calling. Can they be disinterested outsiders, or serious critics?

We are particularly interested in how far they can go in their criticisms - or if they are interested in doing that at all.

The observers will reportedly have their "passports" nullified should they file untrue reports, or take advantage of the privilege to seek personal gains, which would negatively impact court work. We wonder if such impacts include those caused by unfavorable coverage.

And, considering the Yunnan high court's demonstrated sincerity to improve, may we offer a little advice?

Since a large part of what is on offer for the privileged 14 is well within the average citizen's right to know, why not make it available to more?

It is not only a more economic and effective alternative. It will also help allay suspicions that this is not a public relations ploy.

(China Daily April 16, 2009)

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