Newspaper’s Investigative Unit Shuttered in China

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports the closure of Wang Keqin’s famed investigative reporting team at China Economic Times, confirming fears stirred by earlier postings on Sina Weibo.

Xie Baokang, assistant to the Times’ editor, told Agence France-Presse that the investigative department had been “dismantled.” Reporters from the team, including the veteran journalist Wang Keqin, have been moved to different departments, Xie told AFP.

The reasons for the move are not clear, but the lack of transparency surrounding the restructuring is characteristic of the behind-the-scenes political pressure that governs China’s media. Journalists are often fined, dismissed, or demoted in retaliation for outspoken reporting and warned not to publicize the penalty, according to CPJ research.

“This apparent crackdown of the China Economic Times’ investigative section is a loss for China,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The shutdown carries the hallmarks of a political measure to curb a leading news outlet’s reporting that found disfavor within the government.”

From Jonathan Watts at The Guardian:

Contacted by phone, Wang said he was unable to comment. “Sorry, I have to hang up,” he said ….

“I had problems with black society [gangs], and problems with red society [officials],” Wang said in a Guardian interview last year. “I heard there was a special investigation team, [with the target of] sending me to prison.” He said his life had been threatened and he had been beaten up on several occasions.

Until now, however, it was assumed that his position was safe because he was protected by China’s former premier Zhu Rongji. There is little indication of what may have sparked a bout of pressure from the authorities. At midnight and from 5am to 9am, Wang posted a series of online comments calling for freedom and condemning the corruption of officials.

“Thanks for your support … Even if we can only change society a little, that is still progress,” he wrote in one. “Respect everyone’s freedom in order to achieve true freedom,” he noted in another. “Who but a corrupt man would want to become a governor?” read another.

At Economics Observer [zh], journalism professor Zhan Jiang expressed optimism for Wang’s prospects and those of Chinese investigative journalism in general. China Media Project translates:

As I wrote on my microblog, the breakup of Wang Keqin’s investigative team is not something intended by the high-level leadership. It should be understood as the intention of a handful of ignorant and incompetent people at the top of the newspaper. High-level leaders have voiced approval of the work Wang Keqin has done in recent years to uphold the public interest. They have at the very least not singled him out for trouble. Wang Keqin has worked as an investigative reporter in Beijing for more than 10 years now, and from his seminal work on taxi cartels in Beijing to today he has never been targeted with a libel suit, and the factual nature of his reporting has never been questioned.

Reporters have called to ask me about the state of investigative reporting in China and the predicament it faces. I respond that we should avoid this word “predicament.” And for this reason, I encourage against reading too much into this latest development, understanding it as necessarily a reflection of the worsening state of investigative reporting, or a sign that forces outside the paper have agitated against Wang Keqin. This should not in fact be the case. We should recognize that we’ve lately seen an upsurge in investigative reporting in many media, in financial media and commercial newspapers, and even at China Central Television, including such recent cases as tainted pork in China, and just this month revelations of counterfeit products by DaVinci furniture ….

When friends say that being a journalist is a dangerous road, I respond that, given the chance, I will still choose to be a journalist in the next life. Because Wang Keqin and others like him have made China a more transparent place, and they have transformed the values of our people. In a significant sense, they have taken us from a culture of propaganda and exultation (歌颂型文化) to a culture of criticism (批判性文化). Therefore, I suspect that the changes Wang Keqin is now experiencing might bring him an opportunity for fairer pay and greater comfort. If that’s the case, then I suppose we have Chairman Hang to thank.

Only a week ago, Wang himself wrote [zh] that, while the fortunes of investigative journalism have followed “the wave-like pattern of the ‘camel’s hump’”, the trends are generally positive. From China Media Project:

… [From] the standpoint of professionalism, the first true investigative reports in China perhaps have a history of just a decade. I believe we can date them back to the launch of Caijing magazine [by Hu Shuli (胡舒立)] in 1998. Along with the China Central Television program News Probe, which was launched around the same time and also exposed deeper stories, Caijing defined investigative reporting on the basis of “defending the public interest” (捍卫公众利益), “exposing the truth” (揭发黑幕), and “independent investigation by reporters” (记者独立调查), these three core characteristics, choosing its topics on this basis. News Probe in particular at the time defined the exposure of hidden truths (揭发黑幕) as a necessary component. This was the most basic expectation [of the program] ….

Making a broader observation, strictly-defined Chinese investigative reporting has shown the following trends over its history of just over ten years: 1. more and more reporters have been engaged in the writing of exposes (揭黑报道); 2. more and more media have been engaged in the publishing of exposes; 3. more and more good-quality reports and regular columns [on investigative reporting] have appeared in China; 4. investigative reports in China are showing a higher and higher degree of professionalism; 5. investigative reporters are receiving increasing attention and respect by general society.

See also past coverage of Wang Keqin on CDT.