A Case Study of the Southern Metropolis News case

We were recently sent this document “A Case Study of the Southern Metropolis News case,” which is based on notes of a meeting in March attended by the newspapers’ defense lawyers . The notes were taken by Xu Zhiying, one of the lawyers for the editors there who have been imprisoned on spurious “corruption” charges. Many thanks to Xiaorong who translated the document and sent it to us. The full translation is below.

Also, Xiaorong added this note:

“Please show your support by sending a postcard to Mr. Yu Huafeng, the associate chief-editor of Southern Metropolis News, who was sentenced to prison for 12 years (later reduced to eight years). Here is the address:“
喻华锋 收
(Mr. Yu Huafeng
Guangzhou Number One Detention Center B111-4A0044
Shigang Beijie No. 9 Chatou Guanghai Lu
Shijing Zhen, Baiyun District, Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province Postal Code 510435)

Translation by Xiaorong:

The Closure after a Brief Opening during the SARS in China Media
— A Case Study of Southern Metropolis News (Nanfang Dushi Bao)

Southern Metropolis News, used to be an entertaining tabloid, has gradually won a justified reputation among common readers for its aggressive reporting on what is truly happening in China. It was one of the first to report the case of Sun Zhigang, a college graduate and graphic designer who was brutally beaten to death while in police administrative detention. In addition, its call for international attention to investigate the SARS in GuangDong Province last year drew the fieriest criticism from the local government. The follow-up story on a possible SARS patient on Feb. 27, 2004, confirmed immediately by the health department in GuangDong and the central government, also attracted attention locally and internationally.

Several months later, the Southern Metropolis News paid the bitter price for the inevitable conflicts of being a tool for the government and an independent media to express what people care about. Yu Huafeng, the associate-chief-editor and chief manager of Southern Metropolis News, and Li Minying, the former board member of the social committee in Southern Daily Newspaper Group, were both found guilty and sentenced to prison for bribery and embezzlement. , the chief editor of New Beijing Newspaper, which belongs to the Southern Daily Newspaper Group, is currently in custody and under criminal investigation.

Yu HuaFeng broke in tears after the court sentence, “I feel so powerless facing the powerful state system. What can I believe as an innocent person who has to face such brutal punishment?” Xu Zhiyong, one of the defenders for Yu HuaFeng, yet does not want to make a direct link between this case and the reports of SARS and other cases by Southern Metropolis News which enraged the local government, although it has been long known that some officials in GuangDong government swore to revenge for these “negative” reports. In fact, one of the notorious tricks the government loves to play is to unleash the media for free discussion and reports for a brief period and revenge afterwards based on their previous words and deeds. Therefore, it is not a surprising result for a lot of Chinese intellectuals who have had similar experiences in all kinds of movements during the last fifty years and the chilling effects are still vivid in their minds.

This case, however, is more than just a “revenge” from the local government. As Xu explained in detail in an open conference to the public in Beijing on Mar. 21, 2004, the reason that they care about this case is that they care about the progress of Chinese Constitutional Reform. This case represents the painful price the journalists have to pay for the reform of the news media from the central-controlled government-owned management system to the modernized market-orientated system. The China current legal system and administrative regulations are facing fundamental challenges of how to switch the system smoothly without stirring up more turmoil. For example, a lot of chief managers working for government-owned companies are significantly underpaid. Therefore, compensations are made for these managers to get big season- or year-end bonuses. Yu HuaFeng, as the chief manager of Southern Metropolis News in 2000, distributed about $70,000-bonus among 9 editor-committee members after they accomplished a big jump in the seasonal income from advertisements, and Yu himself got ~$12,000. It is in fact a flexible way to reward people who contributed to the success in business when the official rules are incomplete. Due to the limitation in the accounting system, Yu himself had to take the money out of the accounting office for Li Minying, who drew several big customers to Southern Metropolis News. The $12,000 became the only evidence for Yu’s “embezzlement” and he is therefore sentenced to prison for 10 years. Later Li is sentenced for 11 years in prison for accepting “bribes” from Yu, and another 2-year sentence is added to Yu for his bribery so up to the total of 12-year prison sentence.

The smart move the GuangDong local government made is that they did not charge Yu and other editors with anti-government crimes, which obviously will draw significant attention immediately. Instead, they claim Yu is found guilty because of his corporate misconduct. The reality in China is almost every day there is news about big embezzlement and bribery cases. The government usually gains a lot support from people when they punish some of those embezzlers. Therefore, the embezzlement case of Southern Metropolis News is covered by other bigger cases, and the nature of fighting for the freedom in China media is completely lost. Wang XiaoShan, an editor in New
Beijing Newspaper, also a former editor in Southern Metropolis News, opposes to pan-politicize the issue and presents extra data in the conference. As a general editor in Nan Fang, the monthly income is above $1000 and the year-end bonus is about $1800. For a chief-editor as Yu HuaFeng, whose yearly-income is about $120,000, the accusation of $12,000 embezzlement is absolutely absurd. Above all, he used to pay his editors out of his own pocket under the fiscal difficulties in Southern Metropolis News.

At last, Wang expressed his fear, ” I am not protected for speaking the truth and being a good journalist in China. Who knows one day it will be me who gets trapped in the same situation.” At the end of the conference, Xu said they called for the conference not to oppose anything or talk about politics, instead, for the positive side of the reform in the news
media. Yu Huafeng and Cheng Yizhong are explorers in the system reform, and they should not be punished for their brave and meaningful pioneering work.

Based on the records of the conference “An introduction of the NanFang (Southern) Metropolitan News Case from the defense attorneys ” in Beijing, 2004/03/21 Translated by Xiaorong, 2004/03/26

August 27, 2004 1:33 PM
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