Local governments are learning hard lessons from their poor handling of the news media, which in the past often made a bad situation worse or turned a small incident into a bigger one.
In Southwest China's Yunnan province, where a series of clashes broke out in the past two years between local governments and residents, the provincial publicity department of the Communist Party of China Committee has issued a decree, banning the local news media from use derogative terms such as "unruly folks", "evil force", "those ignorant of the truth", "a handful of" and "those with ulterior motives" to describe the people involved in public incidents.
Yunnan's move is unprecedented in the 60 years of the People's Republic. For too long, various governments, which oversee news organizations under their jurisdiction, have rarely hesitated to use such uncomplimentary words to label the people protesting against the governments or even State-owned enterprises.
Like adding fuel to the fire and contrary to expectations, such a strategy often results in stronger public anger and escalated tension. News organizations, which take sides by surrendering to local government pressure, also suffer a severe blow to their credibility.
By banning the use of these belittling words, Yunnan officials have acknowledged that the government may not always be in the right when it clashes with the people. Governments should first take responsibility and make self-criticism before pointing fingers.
The Yunnan move also tells us that even as overseer of the news media, abuse of power by the government is an infringement on the right of the people, whom the news media should loyally represent. This also came as welcome news for journalists, who no longer have to be the scapegoat when the local government covers up its wrongdoings.
Yunnan province has set a good example for governments across the country. The message is: Governments should maintain a proper relationship with the media.
This is a new task for government officials. In Zhejiang province, Party and government leaders are now required to attend training sessions to improve their communication skills with the news media, especially the new media.
As news travels fast in the information age, it is a bad policy for governments to try and hold on to the power to pressurize the news media.
Yunnan and Zhejiang are both teaching government officials that imposing a blackout of negative news in the media is a wrong recipe for resolving any issue.
The government spokesman system which has been introduced in the recent years should be used to facilitate the information flow and make the government operation more transparent, rather than become an obstruction to journalists' work, as is the case now in many localities.
When governance becomes more open and transparent, there will be less room for rumors to circulate and for anxiety to rise.
(China Daily September 7, 2009)