A Reporter's Conscience

(Reporter Home)  "My Conscience is Pained!"  By Zhou Kai  (周凯 ) (China Youth Daily).  April 19, 2007.

I had already gone to bed but I could not fall asleep due to my self-reflections.  If I had posted this on Monday, it would have been impulsive.  When I post this now, it is because of the pangs of my conscience!

I am someone without grand ideals.  It was by accident that I became a graduate student at the Fudan University Department of Journalism, and it was also by accident that I joined this newspaper.  I was not thinking about any journalistic ideals.  Although I have been lauded by people as "mad dog" and "Tibetan mastiff," I know what I am made of.  I only want to earn some money to feed the family.

I am not a brave person.  I have been this way since I was young.  Although I have cursed out a thief once upon a time while he was attempt to commit a theft, I was doing that from inside a taxi and I told the driver to leave quickly afterwards.  If I saw a criminal committing a violent crime, I would not act.  As I write this essay, I am wondering how many people I am going to offend.  Will I be able to work at the newspaper anymore?  Will I be allowed to write news report?  Will I ever get a good rating for my reports?  Will I ever get a good rating for job performance?  Will I ever be rated excellent again?  Yes, I am a  coward!

But I am someone with a conscience!  At least, I still am.

Last month, I wrote an essay titled <One Person's Fight> in <Freezing Point> about counterfeit medicine.  The response was good, and that naturally meant that other people came to me.  From Laiyang (Shandong), a reader called to say that his own mother had been given counterfeit albumin (through intravenous feeding).  The hospital had a bad attitude while the Food and Drug Administration was ambivalent.  During this period, the State Food and Drug Administration has been investigating counterfeit albumin and <Focus Interview> has conducted a similar investigation.  So I checked with the reporters' department and received approval for the assignment.  On April 14 (Saturday), I got on the train to Laiyang.

The timing had been calculated beforehand.  I arrive on the morning of Monday.  I interview the family of the patient and learn about the whole situation.  On Monday, I do interviews at the hospital and the Food and Drug Administration.  I write the report at night and I leave Laiyang.  The news report appears on Tuesday morning.  There is no time for the other side to do any public relations.

By the time that I was half through writing the news report on Monday night, I noted that everything worked according to the process that I planned: this was a serious case because many hospitals in the Yantai area were using counterfeit albumin before the ban was imposed.  The local media were only reporting that the city government was investigating but they did not say that counterfeit drugs had been found.  This meant that most of the patients who had been given counterfeit albumin were unaware.  The State Food and Drug Administration's list of cities/provinces in which counterfeit albumin had been found did not include Shandong province.

The interviewing went relatively smoothly, in spite of some twists.  Ultimately, I was able to interview the patient (actually, I only observed her because she was unconscious), the family of the patient, the deputy director of the hospital, the director of the pharmacy, two levels of the Food and Drug Administration, the pharmaceutical company and the marketing department of the pharmaceutical company.  The interviewing was done in various ways, but I obtained reliable information that were taped.  With respect to the description of the patient, I had audio recordings, photographs and the documents of the transfusions.  It was easy to write the report and I wrote more than 7,000 words in 3 hours.

But I must mention that when I interviewed the Laiyang city Food and Administration deputy director, the other party brought along the deputy director of the Laiyang city publicity department to help.  Afterwards, they wanted to take me out to dinner.  I made the excuse that I had to rush back to Jinan but I would let him take me to the bus station or train station.  Actually, I had planned to go back to the place where I was staying and start writing.  The deputy director was not deceived.  He said that there were no more buses at this hour and the next train was after 11pm.  So there was time for dinner and he even started to find a train ticket for me.  So I had to send a SMS to the complainant to ask him to call me and pretend that he was a friend of a classmate who was asking me to do something as well as taking me to dinner.  The deputy director was not deceived by this ruse either.  He took me to the hotel that the complainant told me so that I can say hello while he waited in the hotel lobby.  So while I was trying to figure out with the complainant how to shake the deputy director off, he called again to say that another deputy director of the Publicity Department was coming there to meet me as well.  In the end, I made up an excuse that the friend of the classmate was taking me out to dinner and then driving me to Jinan.  Finally, the two deputy directors left.  Of course, they had to remind me not to ruin the image of Laiyang.  "When your report goes out, the people will know that they were getting counterfeit medicine.  They won't come to cause trouble with the government, right?"  So I just bluffed my way through.

After seeing the two deputy directors off, I thought that it was going to be smooth sailing afterwards.  I went back to write the news report.  During the daytime and nighttime editorial pre-planning meetings, the report had been scheduled to run and the people at the Economy page were waiting.

But at around 9:30pm when I had gotten to more than 4,000 words, I received a telephone call from Beijing to inform me that the report could not published for the moment.  The reason?  Our newspaper is presently discussing a joint project with Laiyang about the "One Hundred Great Counties."

Oh! My God! A joint project!

The telephone call did not stop me from writing the essay because I still had a faint hope.  At 22:42:58, a 7,032-word essay was sent from Laiyang (Shandong) to Beijing.  When I called the Economy section people again, my last trace of hope was dashed.  The leader had instructed that this report not to be published.

Oh! My God! What can I say?

Even if the report was not going out, I still had to return to Beijing.  I had purchased the return ticket for the Tuesday 1am train.  I would be getting on the train in two hours' time.  So I quietly packed.

But just before midnight, the complainant and his cousin came to my place.  They said that they wanted to make sure that I was safe and they want to escort me safely to the train.  Of course, they also wanted to take me out for a night snack.

I did not tell them what had happened in the past few hours.  I only said that the main thing was for their mother to get well.  The media are not omnipotent and some media reports may have negative consequences for the principals.  I did not know why I said that.  Perhaps I was trying to inoculate him.  He obviously did not know the import of what I said and he kept thanking me.  He thanked China Youth Daily.  He thanked the China Youth Daily reporters.  "I contacted Phoenix TV and <Focus Interview>.  They said that they would come but they did not.  Only China Youth Daily said that they would come and they came."  "You reporters ought to become the State Premier.  Only you people will speak on behalf of the people."

When I heard that, I could only laugh in embarrassment.  I felt terrible inside and I only wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

At my insistence, we did not go for the night snack.  But before I boarded the train, the complainant forced a bag of goodies on me: beverage, ham sausage, instant noodles.  "Reporter Zhou, if you don't accept this, I will go with you to Beijing."  We pushed the bag back and forth several times, until I accepted this heavy bag with a terrible sense of shame in my heart.

When I got back to Beijing, I still a faint ray of hope in my heart.  They had not said that it was dead and they did not say that it was definitely not going to be published.  I wanted to explain and I wanted to fight for it, but there did not seem to be any chance.  On this afternoon, I received the decision: "Send it out on <Internal Reference News> instead.  We have a joint project here."

Oh!  My God!  Yet another joint project!  This time, it is the "One Hundred Strong Counties."  Next time, it will be either "One Thousand Strong Towns" or "Ten Thousand Strong Villages."  Yes, we have to have joint project, we have to have marketing, we have to have advertisements and we have to have distribution because we lack money!  When one is poor, one has low aspirations.  That old saying makes sense!

Do you still want the brand "China Youth Daily" anymore?

Nothing more needs to be said about the environment of Chinese media, which is understandable due to the various restrictions.  Even in the United States and Europe, there is no absolute freedom.  But where is our bottom line?

We must carry out the orders from above.  That is not a problem, and we can gripe in private.  There is no absolute justice in the world.  We see enough injustice.  There are many disasters.  We seemed to have become numbed.  Several days ago, there were the Henan mining disaster, the Liaoning steel factory, the American shooting and we only talk about the numbers -- was it 31 persons, or 32 persons, or 33 persons?  Oh, was that the largest number of people killed by gunfire in the United States in an incident?  Oh, many people died in that coal mine disaster and how come it is in Henan province again?  How come it is Liaoning again?  Since we are too distant from the dead geographically, we are not connected to them and so they are only the subjects in certain reports.

I had not done a lot of investigative reporting previously and very few of them were negative reports.  Perhaps a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai was better run and the true disasters did not fall within our area of coverage.  But this particular investigative report moved me a great deal.  Although I only had contact with one patient, there had to be dozens, hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of patients who are still uninformed.  Some of the patients may have passed away after receiving the counterfeit medicine.  So I could not have peace of mind.  I wanted to tell the truth to the readers.  I wanted to tell those patients who were kept in the dark.

Here I need to explain that the complainant was in reasonable shape financially as far as local conditions were concerned.  Although he, his wife, younger sister and parents were unemployed and had no income except his father had a retirement income of more than 1,000 yuan per month, he  had a good job before and he had made some savings.  He was educated enough to get on the Internet, use an audio recording pen and contact the media.  But it is easy to imagine that there are many more patients in the rural area who do not know how to get on the Internet or contact the media.  They get sick, they go to the hospital, they spend a lot of money, they do not improve but they get worse instead and even die.  They only blame themselves for being unlucky.  When I think about this, I cannot stay calm.  I had to get out of bed and start writing this.

There are very few media outlets doing true investigative reporting in China.  Our newspaper used to be praised for doing investigative reporting, especially those that fall into watchdog journalism.  Maybe we are still proud of doing that.  But I don't know if we can still keep going investigative reporting in the future.  How much space is left for us?

I once collaborated with an intern on a big investigative report about health insurance.  I worked on it for more than one month and I wrote more than 6,000 words.  It was all set to go, but it was held back twice due to public relations.  So be it.  Although that report was about something that affected the interests of many people, it was not a matter of life-or-death.  Besides, the relevant department was attempting to improve things.  Any media out in China is liable to encounter "public relations" and that is nothing unusual.  The past is over.  Although the department and the editors tried to get compensation for me, I did not worry about that.  Who is going to spend so much time just to get two or three hundred yuan?  I just felt that I owed the intern a lot.

But this time I could not satisfy my own self.  If I never received the telephone call from the complainant, it would be alright.  If I received the telephone from the complainant and I did not go out there, it would be alright . If it did not involve life-or-death issues, it would be alright.  If it did not involve the lives and health of tens, hundreds or thousands of patients, it would be alright.  But there cannot be so many "if's."

I do not produce counterfeit medicine, I do not sell counterfeit medicine, I am not a doctor at the hospital, I am not the Food and Drug Administration, I am not the Publicity Department but I still have a pained conscience.  That is because I have learned the truth but I am unable to inform others.  I cannot inform the patients.  I cannot make the evil counterfeit drug makers, the evil counterfeit drug sellers, the evil doctors and the evil officials get their just punishments.  That makes me no different from the evil counterfeit drug makers, the evil counterfeit drug sellers, the evil doctors and the evil officials.  I am their accomplice!  I have betrayed the patients!  I am a sinner!

I am no Savior.  I am no saint.  I am just a cowardly ordinary person.  I cannot save anyone.  I cannot change the fate of anyone.

But I am a reporter.  I am a reporter for China Youth Daily.  I am a reporter for China Youth Daily which used to be praised.  I am also a person with a conscience.  I don't know how suppressing a truthful report for a 100,000 or 200,000 or 100 million or 200 million yuan joint project is any different from those "reporters" who write critical essays for extortion purposes?

If this matter affects the image of the local government, or undermines the stability of the area, or pertains to the establishment and implementation of certain policies while it also creates hardship in advertisements, distribution and operations for the newspaper, I am willing to waive my right to complain.  But this is not what it is.  This is about life-and-death.  My mind was still etched with the image of the mother of the complainant lying comatose on the bed.  I cannot forget the cold expressions on the faces of the doctors.  I cannot forget the faces of the hypocritical officials.  And I cannot forget that I have unwittingly become a shameless sinner!

I don't know what the core competitiveness of China Youth Daily is.  I don't know if I want to write investigative reports anymore.  I don't know if I want to do watchdog journalism anymore.  I don't know if I want to report on incidents.  I don't know if I want to do reporting based upon leg work.  I don't know.  I really don't know!

I still need to pay my mortgage.  I want to buy a bigger house for my wife.  I want to have a child.  I also want to buy a car.  I also need money.  Of course, I am going to get all this through my work at the newspaper.  The newspaper also needs money in order to satisfy the needs of its workers.  If the state won't provide the money, the newspaper has to earn money on its own.  It needs advertisements, it needs marketing, it needs distribution and it is that simple.  Of course, I understand that.  The newspaper is my provider.  If the newspaper does not pay wages, I won't be able to pay my mortgage, I won't be able to get a new house, I won't be able to buy a car and I won't get money.  But where is our bottom line?

When we get the 100,000 or 200,000 or 100 million or 200 million yuan from Laiyang, do our hands feel burned?  Do our hearts quiver?  Do our faces blush?

I don't know, I don't know, I really don't know!

I know that the doctor had been secretly giving Dolantin to the complainant's mother for several days and he had pronounced "a delayed death sentence."  I know that when the complainant's mother eventually passes away, he intends to take her body to stage a sit-in at the hospital.  I also know that the complainant intends to contact other victims to petition.  Could this be what the local government wants to see happen?  Could this be the outcome that we want to see?

(The Wall Street Journal)  The Toxic Toll of Press Repression.  By Kristin Jones.  July 9, 2007.

The discovery of toxic ingredients in toothpaste, seafood, cough syrup and toys has raised questions about the safety of China 's exports. These threats -- and the risk they pose to consumers -- could have been uncovered much earlier had the Chinese government used its best weapon: its own domestic press.

Over the last 30 years, the press in China has developed from a turgid official mouthpiece to a thriving industry, with hundreds of thousands of journalists working across the country. Commercialization, the Internet and increased contact with the outside world have built a sophisticated and dogged press corps with eyes and ears all over the country.

But the media's increasing capacity for ferreting out information is no guarantee that news will make it into print or onto the airwaves. The Party's Central Propaganda Department and local propaganda departments all over the country issue daily do-not-report orders to the press. Journalists who disobey are demoted, fired or even jailed. Crucial news about corruption, public health and safety, and many other contentious issues is often buried.

In the wake of the recent crisis, Chinese officials have accused Americans of exaggerating import risks to bolster their position in a trade dispute. But they know well that improperly regulated products have taken their biggest toll on their own people. For example, journalists in Fuyang in 2004 first revealed the horrific deaths of malnourished infants who had been fed counterfeit milk formula that was devoid of nutritional value. Many other, similar cases have fallen victim to propaganda department orders that silence in-depth investigations, often with the collusion of local officials or powerful businessmen.

When Chinese reporter Zhou Kai discovered in April that patients in the city of Laiyang in Shandong province were receiving intravenous injections of counterfeit medicine, he managed to get inside a hospital to talk to the family and doctors of a comatose patient. Then he interviewed the deputy director of an apparently indifferent local Food and Drug Administration. But before his article could be published, the local Communist Party's propaganda department got word of Mr. Zhou's investigation.

In a move perfectly attuned to the current mix of Party power and capitalist sensibilities in China , officials from Laiyang offered an advertising package to Mr. Zhou's employer at the major national newspaper China Youth Daily. The newspaper's officially appointed management blocked the story from publication.

That would have been the end of it had Mr. Zhou not taken the significant personal and professional risk of posting his chilling account of censorship on an internal office network, where it eventually found its way online. His story remains posted on a Web forum for journalists in China , and the Hong Kong-based blog EastSouthWestNorth translated it:

"I do not produce counterfeit medicine, I do not sell counterfeit medicine, I am not a doctor at the hospital, I am not the Food and Drug Administration, I am not the Publicity Department but I still have a pained conscience," wrote Mr. Zhou. "That is because I have learned the truth but I am unable to inform others. I cannot inform the patients."

With at least 29 journalists imprisoned in China , the wonder is that journalists like Mr. Zhou have the courage to tell their stories at all. If investigative journalism like Mr. Zhou's were rewarded instead of penalized in China , we might be hearing much less from U.S. regulators about the hazards of Chinese imports. A free press has a way of getting to the ugly truth sooner than bureaucrats, whether foreign or national.

Ms. Jones is the senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York .