Why Are Chinese Media Allowed to Report on Food Safety Scandals?

Summary from Yahoo:

Toxic bean sprouts, filthy cooking oil, drug-tainted pork: The relentless headlines in Chinese media have churned up queasy feelings for months about the dangers lurking in the nation’s dinner bowls.

The central government has been cautiously encouraging a sudden burst in food safety muckraking. That’s in contrast to before the new food safety campaign, when local officials would delay or quash reporting on food safety or the provincial government had to give permission for coverage of food scandals…

Few think the looser controls on food reporting signal a broader reform of Chinese media, which remains strictly controlled by the ruling Communist Party. Blogging and publishing are also muzzled, and those who challenge the government risk being harassed or detained.

Chang Ping, a former columnist fired from the gutsy Southern Metropolis Weekly for his critiques, said reporters have long had a freer hand on food troubles as long as they portray them as isolated rather, than systemic problems.

How come Chinese authorities allow coverage of food safety scandals? (Emilie Mocellin/AFP/ Getty Images)

Is freedom of speech improving in China?

We spoke with Benjamin Ismaïl, Head of Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters Without Borders. Here is what he told us over the phone:

I think that just by observation you can tell if an article in the mainstream media has been censored [or not]. If it’s not polished or if it’s not visible online, you can’t access it. So you don’t even know that this article existed in the first place.

The censorship in the mainstream media in China is not operated the same way as the censorship done on the blogs and on the Internet. The Internet is less well controlled by the government, even though the control is still very strong, compared to the control they have on their media, on their newspaper press agencies.

The censorship in the Internet is mainly executed after the articles or posts are published online. Then they are monitored by the government agencies, and when some articles are found by the government agencies they are removed—but only after they have been published.

For the [state-run] media, the articles can be reviewed before they are published. If it’s a TV program, the content of the program is criticized by the Party and by the government agencies before it is broadcasted. So the results of these censorships are less visible, because what you see and what you read is what the Chinese government lets you see and lets you read.

Why do Chinese authorities allow coverage of food safety scandals at all?

The milk scandal has made some noise, and I think the government is conscious now that it cannot annihilate completely the coverage of such scandal by the media, as it had indented to do in the past.

So the government has to let the media cover these stories. That’s the main reason they [permit] some media coverage. … But I don’t think there is necessarily more freedom or less control.

If the mainstream media do not cover some issues, then the Internet can take the relay. And then the voices and the opinions brought on the Internet might not have any contradiction, if the mainstream media are forbidden to cover the same story.

It’s acknowledging that some information cannot be completely blacked out and ignored by the whole population. It’s not possible anymore without the technology of information and communication. So, if they try to impose a complete blackout from their media, as they did in the past, then Internet will take the relay and the consequences could be aggravated.

There would be leaks [of information] anyway, and the Internet and the social networks would continue to talk about these issues…. it’s more efficient to bring the attention on these issues from the [state-run] media point of view—press media or TV.

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