The arrest of a journalist for allegedly damaging the reputation of an equipment manufacturer has spurred debate in both the media and legal circles. The discussions revolve around the rights of the press, interpretation of the law, and possible abuse of power by the police.
The Criminal Law indeed includes a clause on “fabricating stories and spreading them to damage another person’s business reputation.” The clause became law in 1997 and is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines.
There are two requirements for finding someone guilty. The first is the clear intention of the suspect. The second is it that the person’s behavior involves fabricating information, spreading it, and causing severe consequences.
In other words, if the journalist did not fabricate any information, the charge of damaging a business’s reputation cannot stand. Moreover, the police have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was the journalist’s intention. Even if the journalist cannot prove the validity of the information he published, if one can conclude that he had enough reason to believe the information was true, he cannot be held liable.
The police in Changsha, in the central province of Hunan, who arrested Chen Yongzhou, the journalist for the New Express newspaper in Guangzhou, say Chen’s reporting was based on subjective judgment.
The people who do not subscribe to the police’s point of view argue that most of Chen’s articles cited facts from the public financial reports of Hunan-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Development Co. Ltd. They say that at worst Chen may have allowed his opinions into his work, but that is not a crime.
Xu Xun, director of the Communication Law Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law and an expert on libel, said that in recent years there have only been a few cases of journalists being held responsible on the charge of damaging a business’s reputation.
Of these, one person was sentenced to a year in prison and the rest were fined. The jailed journalist worked at Beijing TV and had made up a story that stuffing in steamed dumplings in restaurants in the capital was made of wastepaper.
In these cases, Xu said, the reporters had made up key parts of their stories, but this is not the case in Chen’s articles. The New Express indeed admitted one minor flaw in his fifteen reports on Zoomlion. The newspaper said on October 22 that one of his stories said Zoomlion spent 513 million yuan on advertising when it was actually spent on ads and entertainment.
“If that is true, this can’t be seen as fabricating information, and criminal procedures should not be used,” Xu said. “The matter should be settled through a civil case.”
Another key issue is whether the police had the right to arrest Chen.
A regulation on criminal law enforcement procedures says that when necessary, the police can start a preliminary investigation, during which they can take measures such as question people and collect evidence. This can be done, the regulation says, as long as police do not restrict the freedom of a person or the person’s property rights.
Based on what the New Express has said, Chen was arrested by police from a nearby province without any warning or questioning. They simply determined the journalist was suspected of committing a crime and decided to restrict his personal freedom.
Xu said if there were problems with a news story, the victim should first report the problem to the media outlet that published the report or the journalists’ association. They could also file a libel case in court.
“Using the police to pursue a criminal case and arresting the journalist should be the last step,” Xu said.
Wang Yong, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said that in the financial sector, when press freedom and a business’s reputation had to be balanced, more leeway should be given to the press.
This was because open information related to listed companies was extremely important to investors, Wang said. Even if some reports are inappropriate, open and transparent disclosure, coupled with investors’ own judgment, would mitigate negative impacts of false information.
The most high-profile case of police in one area seeking a journalist in another involved a business reporter in 2010. Country-level police in Lishui, in the eastern province of Zhejiang, put online an order to arrest Qiu Ziming, a journalist at the Economic Observer newspaper in Beijing.
Qiu said the police hunt for him was related to articles he wrote on Zhejiang Kan Group Co. Ltd., which makes paper products. A public outcry prompted city-level police to investigate, and they eventually told the county-level police to back down and apologize to Qiu in person.
When reporters try to hurt a business’s reputation the misbehavior is usually pretty clear cut. The first time the charge was used was in 2002 in Nanjing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
In that case Qian Guangru, a reporter at a city newspaper, took 4,000 yuan from an unhappy consumer to write two reports critical of a company that made air conditioners. Afterward, his editors ordered him not to follow up.
Days later, however, Qian helped the consumer plan a public campaign in which people smashed the company’s air conditioners. Qian helped plan the event, write a slogan, and organize media coverage. The consumer paid him 8,000 yuan for his efforts.
A court sentenced the consumer to a year in jail and fined Qian 30,000 yuan for the damage caused to the company’s reputation.
The court, however, was careful to separate Qian’s reporting from his later actions. In its ruling, the court said Qian’s two news reports, though they contained false accusations, were not a criminal offence. This was because the court could not see beyond a reasonable doubt that Qian intended to hurt the company.
The fine, the court said, was for participating in a public campaign based on false claims and spreading this information, actions that had cost the company 600,000 yuan in losses.