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Government launches crackdown on fake news stories after Beijing TV reporter's arrest

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned the government's political exploitation of the fact that a much-commented TV report about pork buns made with cardboard supposedly turned out to have been fabricated. The authorities have used it to launch a campaign against fake news reports with "heavy penalties" for the journalists responsible.

"Journalist Zi Beijia's arrest has enabled the institutions in charge of the media to reinforce their control of news content," the press freedom organisation said. "Bogus news reports are obviously a grave violation of journalistic standards but it is not the state's job to get involved. Problems such this should be resolved by the news organisation's editors and management."

Reporters Without Borders added: "This is why we call for Zi's release and the end of this government campaign, which shows how far the Chinese media have to go before they are free of the government's meddlesome supervision."

The government press announced on 25 July 2007 that the three institutions that have the job of controlling the media - the Communist Party's Propaganda Department, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the General Administration of Press and Publications - had issued a statement threatening journalists and news media with severe sanctions for fabricating reports.

A report posted on the "People's Daily" website said journalists found guilty of causing public anxiety or tarnishing the nation's image by fabricating news reports would be severely punished. The media would also be sanctioned. The three institutions urged journalists to apologise publicly and to correct their mistakes.

The police announced on 19 July that they had arrested Zi, a freelance reporter working for state-owned Beijing TV, for fabricating a report that had a lot of impact in China and abroad. Zi allegedly persuaded the employees of a food store to make buns with shredded cardboard and filmed them doing it. Since then, there has been no further word of Zi or five other people who have been arrested and who could be prosecuted.

Beijing TV apologised for the mistake on 18 July. Seven other journalists and employees of the station have sanctioned or reprimanded.

Although the police now claim the report was fabricated, the government said it was aware of the problem shortly after the report was broadcast on 8 July. Even the official news agency Xinhua acknowledged that many Beijing residents were sceptical about the findings of the police. The district where the report was filmed is known for having factories that produce imitation alcohol and food products. A journalist with the Hong Kong-based daily "Ming Pao" was threatened while trying to investigate the existence of these factories.

The newly-launched campaign also follows accusations by officials and government media against foreign news media that have reported cases of Chinese products posing a health risk. Nearly 100 people died recently in Panama after consuming Chinese medicine containing toxic substances.

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