Threats to Anonymous Sources Shake Chinese Journalism

Courts in the capital are mulling over what's being described as the first legal attack against the use of anonymous sources in news reports published by the Chinese media.

The charges leveled against the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend newspaper and The Beijing News revolve around claims that in 2012 they printed articles defaming a trade group called the World Luxury Association (WLA) and its chairman, Mao Ouyang Kun, also known as Ouyang Kun.

Mao has been defending his and the organization's reputation for more than two years in the face of critics who say WLA, which bills itself as a market analysis firm for the global luxury consumer-goods sector, exists on paper only. The critics include a popular blogger whose claims were quoted in newspaper reports and whose WLA-bashing posts on Weibo, the country's answer to Twitter, went viral.

Mao, incensed that his critics have never been named in public, has taken the newspapers to court.

So far, Mao has won his lawsuits by convincing courts that the newspapers were wrong to print critics' claims without revealing their identities.

Beijing's Chaoyang District Court in February found Southern Weekend and The Beijing News guilty of harming WLA's reputation in articles that relied on information from anonymous sources. The court ordered the papers to delete the articles from their websites and publish formal apologies. Moreover, The Beijing News was told to pay Mao 20,000 yuan.

The newspapers have appealed to Beijing's Third Intermediate People's Court. The appeals are pending.

Meanwhile in May, the Chaoyang court started considering a separate lawsuit against The Beijing News filed by Mao.

Ethical Issue

The courts' decisions against the media outlets surprised Professor Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University's College of Journalism and Communication. He said although the articles may have had some minor flaws, they were fundamentally factual.

The courts based their rulings on an excessively strict standard of accountability for investigative journalists, Zhan said. He fears the ruling will have a chilling effect on the press' professional duty as a public watchdog.

The rulings also shed light on the legal debate over the use and protection of anonymous sources by Chinese media outlets, said Xu Xun, the Executive Director of the China University of Political Science's Media Legal Research Center. 

Information and sources of information are essential for journalists, Xu said, and sometimes a media outlet will make an ethical decision to accept information without revealing the source's identity. Forcing journalists to break such vows will make information gathering more difficult, he said, and could threaten the media industry.

The defendants have not taken Mao's lawsuits lying down. On April 25, The Beijing News claimed in a report filed with the Beijing Public Security Bureau, a police agency, that Mao had tampered with the evidence he presented in court. The newspaper further claimed Mao arranged for a man named Wang Ziqiang to lie for him in court.

Wang's testimony, which was cited as factual evidence by the courts in their anti-media rulings, claimed he had been interviewed by The Beijing News reporters and that they had tried to bribe him. He said the reporters had wanted him to lie about Mao.

The Beijing News' blast at Mao and Wang came 10 months after Southern Weekend made similar accusations in a letter to the police office overseeing Beijing's Chaoyang District. The newspaper claimed Wang had given false information in a ploy to frame Southern Weekend and a reporter, Chen Zhongxiaolu.

Chen co-authored with other reporters two investigative pieces about WLA in June 2012. The Beijing News later published a similar pair of investigative articles.

The papers said WLA is not, as it claims, a non-profit organization registered in the United States with headquarters in New York and branches around the world. Instead, they said, it's a for-profit company registered in China and run by Mao, a former actor.

The papers also called into question WLA's ability to provide data and analyze the luxury goods market. The organization claims to be the world's largest luxury-sector researcher, and says it can publish industry reports and organize exhibitions.

The Beijing News said in its appeal that WLA is a shell with no real operations, and that it falsely claims to have offices in "a dozen or so" countries. Southern Weekend's legal counsel, Peng Chunwen, said it is deceitful to use "world" in the organization's name and claim its data is genuine.

Meanwhile, a popular blogger writing under the Weibo name "President Flower" has also blasted WLA, saying its New York registration was phony. His posts attracted widespread online attention in 2012 and added fuel to the fire stoked by the newspaper reports.

Flower, whose real name has not been released by authorities, said he later received death threats from a Weibo user. Another blogger who criticized WLA under the name Chen Guo IBM also received threats.

Despite the threats, Flower continued to challenge WLA and Mao, posting Weibo critiques almost daily for a month. His blog's popularity swelled.

Last September, Chaoyang police arrested Flower on extortion charges. He was questioned at a police station and released on bail the next day.

Claims, Counter-Claims

Flower's arrest apparently stemmed from charges that Mao filed against him in June 2012 with the Shanghai Public Security Bureau. He claimed the blogger tried to blackmail him.

In the claim, which Mao later brought to Beijing police as well, Flower was guilty of extortion and commercial defamation. As evidence, Mao showed police a computer screen shot of an email he received from Flower that he said proved the blackmail attempt.

Flower denied sending the email. He remains free on bail, but the charges against him apparently have not been dropped.

On the other hand, the case against Chen was dismissed about a year ago—after months of pressure from authorities. Some of that stress followed official orders issued to several websites to remove any negative reports about WLA, including her articles. She was later told the website operators had been shown documents about the flap written by the economic crimes investigation unit of the Chaoyang police.

The documents indicated investigators were pursuing Mao's claim of commercial defamation, and indicated police had found evidence that the media had paid Flower to lie about WLA and Mao. Police said they had "discovered that the media has published and reprinted online a large quantity of false information."

Economic crimes investigator Han Yingchun told Chen they had a witness who was also a former WLA employee and had met the reporter in Beijing. Chen denied meeting such a person and said she had not been to Beijing for a year before the article was published.

"At first, I thought the police were mistaken or that I had been deceived," Chen told Caixin. "I tried to explain to them but very quickly realized they were not listening."

Chen thinks police filed a case against her based on lies, including a claim that the media had published lies about WLA.

Mao got ahold of the documents that police used to launch their probe of Chen and then took them to industry and commerce authorities, which had previously opened an investigation of Mao. The case focused on "a suspicion of submitting false materials to obtain a company registration."

Mao also sent the documents to websites that had republished Chen's articles and to the former General Administration of Press and Publication, a central government agency that oversees the media, claiming "illegal behavior" by Chen.

Protecting Sources

WLA and Mao filed lawsuits against the newspapers, their parent companies, and the reporters as Chaoyang police were moving in on Flower and Chen.

WLA's initial suit said The Beijing News and Southern Weekend published articles based on lies, depended on anonymous sources whose goals were to vilify WLA and topped the articles with harmful headlines. The result was that the articles hurt the organization's reputation, he said, which led to project and business losses for the plaintiff.

The Chaoyang court held several hearings, and finally on February 26 ruled for the plaintiff.

Court documents indicate that WLA operated as the World Luxury Association (Beijing) International Commercial Management Co. Ltd. But this company's business license was revoked by the Beijing Bureau of Industry and Commerce after its officials filed fake trademark registration certificates and falsified business records.

Caixin also found in the court documents photocopies of two contracts and payment receipts.

One contract said it was for "cleaning up online rights-infringing information." WLA hired Beijing Wangbo Huaxia Technology Co. Ltd. to handle the task over a three-month period starting in March 2013 for 120,000 yuan.

Wangbo was to arrange for the removal from the Internet anything that might hurt the reputations of WLA or Mao, appearing in forums or on message boards, blogs, microblogs, and other online sites.

Wangbo was to contact websites and convince them to delete relevant data. In addition, Wangbo was to post press releases online training a positive light on WLA and Mao.

WLA also had a similar contract with a company called Shanghai Yitian Cultural Broadcasting Co. Ltd. to "optimize" negative information found through the Baidu and Google search engines. The one-year deal was worth 60,000 yuan.

Wang claimed he worked from 2009-11 for an Internet company that is now defunct. Later, he served as Public Relations Manager for the Zhongxinwei Information Center, whose legal representative, Chen Zhipeng, is Mao's assistant at WLA.

Wang testified in court against the newspapers and their reporters, claiming to be a former WLA employee. He said that while working for Mao, The Beijing News and Southern Weekend reporters had offered him payoffs in exchange for defamatory comments about WLA that they could include in their articles.

Chen and Beijing News reporter Liu Gang, however, said they never interviewed Wang.

Wang claimed that Chen phoned him in June 2012 to arrange a meeting at a Beijing tea house where he could expect to receive 20,000 yuan. He was told he could get more money if he agreed to deeper cooperation. Chen denies the charge.

Since the saga began, police have apparently left Wang alone. Chen said she asked authorities why Wang hadn't been probed and was told "This person can't be found at the moment."

But Wang was easy to find at the court hearings.

Chen and Liu testified that one source of information about Mao and WLA was a woman whose name they refused to share. Wang, the reporters said, was not a source.

Nevertheless, Wang's testimony was apparently a major factor influencing the court decisions against the media.

The court ruled that although most content in the articles had been verified by the journalists, some information had come from sources whom the court knew nothing about. The articles cited information found on Weibo such as Flower's posts, as well as interviews with sources who asked not to be named.