Chinese Court Backs Media, Raises Hopes

Times Staff Writer

In a case that could bolster free speech in China, a court in the southern city of Guangzhou ruled Monday that a magazine did not commit libel when it wrote that a well-connected real estate developer was in financial straits.

As China’s media have become more aggressive in recent years, powerful business interests have used the courts and political connections to try to silence them.

“This is significant and shows modest progress,” said Zhang Xingshui, lead attorney in the Beijing Kingdom law firm. “The media usually ends up losing these cases. I hope we can see more decisions like this, which could spur social progress.”


In its decision Monday, the Tianhe District People’s Intermediate Court ruled against Guangzhou Huaqiao Real Estate Development Co., which had sought $711,000 in damages from China Reform magazine. The company has not said whether it will appeal.

The case involved an article in the July 2003 edition. Quoting government and corporate documents, China Reform reported that a series of ownership changes at Guangzhou Huaqiao had resulted in losses, layoffs and the stripping of company assets. The revelations angered management, which sued.

But the court said that journalists enjoyed legal immunity if their news coverage was backed up by a reasonable, credible source and did not rely on rumors or fabrication, according to a copy of the verdict seen by the Reuters news agency.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made accountability and battling corruption priorities, but the government has drawn a clear line, legal experts said, that China Reform did not cross: Although the state appears to be allowing a wider role for the media in unearthing corruption and irregularities, it wants that gaze limited to business issues that don’t stray into the sensitive area of political corruption.

China Reform is seen as a responsible, relatively progressive but politically neutral magazine. That contrasts with Southern Metropolitan, another publication based in Guangzhou, which has pushed the boundaries of reporting nationwide and incurred the government’s wrath.

China’s media marketplace has seen significant change in recent years. Foreign companies can now invest, the days of a stony-faced censor in every newsroom are gone and even state-run publications are now forced to compete for readers.


That said, the industry remains constrained by self-censorship and overt state scrutiny, and some experts cautioned against reading too much into the China Reform case. Though the decision was encouraging, they said, one can’t assume that subsequent decisions will nudge the law in a similar direction.

“It’s wonderful news, and it’s good to see the media win once in a while,” said Jiao Guobiao, associate professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communications. “But China still lacks the sort of precedent or case law seen in Western countries. So even if journalists win here, they may lose elsewhere.... If the government does afford some protection to the media, it’s only because it serves its own interests.”

Monday’s decision also flies in the face of a stricter attitude toward news and personal expression in recent months.

Last month, authorities detained a New York Times news assistant who formerly worked for China Reform, accusing him of “providing state secrets to foreigners” after the newspaper broke the story that former President Jiang Zemin would hand a key military post to Hu.

In August, it shut down Zhanlue Yu Guanli, a prominent diplomacy journal, after it published an article that criticized the North Korean government, a longtime Chinese ally.

In recent months, the government has imposed new restraints on the use of text messaging on cellphones and online university bulletin boards.


Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.