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11 Nov, 2013

Chinese commentator highlights U.S. double standards over “freedom of speech”

By Ku Ma (China Daily)

It’s a big pity that the Western media rushed to join in the debate sparked by Chen Yongzhou, a Chinese tabloid journalist who was detained on charges of defaming a construction equipment maker, while only a few of them paid much attention to Jimmy Kimmel’s “kill every one in China” comment, which should surely have been even more eye catching.

Chen has been portrayed by many Western media outlets as the latest “victim” in China’s “new curbs on journalists, lawyers and Internet users”. ABC talk show host Kimmel praised a boy’s idea to deal with US debt crisis by “killing everyone in China” as “interesting”, which outraged Chinese people, but did not provoke much criticism from his fellow journalists.

These two unrelated incidents raise a common question: speech freedom is a shared value, but what are the boundaries of this freedom?

Freedom of speech should certainly be protected, however, there is no, and can be no, “absolute speech freedom”, no matter whether it is in China or in the West.

The tabloid reporter Chen’s case is still under investigation. Over the weekend, Chen confessed on State broadcaster Central China Television that he received bribes to invent negative stories about Changsha-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. Ltd. New Express, the Guangzhou tabloid that employed Chen, had published two bold front-page pleas for police to release him last week. But on Sunday it issued an apology for the false reports.

CCTV’s reports sparked controversy because its images of Chen in handcuffs may lead the public to believe he is a criminal. But before his confession many netizens had supported Chen, insisting he was wronged by Hunan police.

The media should not intervene in justice. Chen should not be considered a criminal before he has been convicted in court, neither should he be portrayed as a victim before then. CCTV’s reports, despite being controversial, were a sort of media rebalancing after the majority of online opinion favored Chen against the police.

It’ s a basic journalism principle that journalists should base their reports on the facts they discover rather than invent stories, and they should of course not take bribes. If the charges against Chen prove true, the case will be judged and he will be sentenced according to the law.

Therefore Chen’s case is not “curb on speech freedom” as the Western media have tried to sensationalize it, but just an ordinary case. The rub is: such wrongdoing by the Chinese media which unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the media outlet or person who commits the act should be covered by the Tort Law, but this has no specific clauses on the media.

Because of this loophole, many media tort cases are investigated and judged according to the Criminal Law. As happened in Chen’s case, Hunan police investigated the accusations according to Article 221 of the Criminal Law, which stipulates: “Whoever fabricates and spreads falsified information to impair other people’s commercial reputation and commodity reputation, and causes significant losses to others of if there are other serious circumstances, is to be sentenced not more than two years of fixed term imprisonment, criminal detention, and may in addition or exclusively be sentenced to a fine.”

If there were clear clauses covering the media in the Tort Law, it would have decreased the chance of different laws being applied in similar media cases. And Chen’s case should have been carried out between Zoomlion and New Express rather than the company versus the reporter since Chen’s reports were as part of his job. The police’s investigation into the individual journalist was easier to misinterpret as an abuse of power. So it’s high time to accelerate the legal discussions on when and how to incorporate clear clauses on media into the Tort Law.

Likewise, Kimmel’s controversial comments indicates that there is no, and should be no, absolute “freedom of speech” in the West. His comments incite race hate.

In US history, racists have always manipulated the First Amendment to the US Constitution which governs freedom of speech to spread hatred against other races. In Erik Bleich’s Book The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, the author reveals that most countries have restricted the freedom for racist speech, associations, and motives since the end of World War II, and that the US has been at the forefront of contracting freedom of racist opinions.

The petition to the White House to investigate Kimmel’s “Kid’s Table” segment on the government shutdown in his show says: “The kids might not know anything better. However, Jimmy Kimmel and ABC’s management are adults. They had a choice not to air this racist program, which promotes racial hatred. … It is extremely distasteful and this is the same rhetoric used in Nazi Germany against Jewish people. Please immediately cut the show and issue a formal apology.”

On Saturday, the 80-20 Political Action Committee, an Asian American organization, announced that the ABC senior night editors wrote a letter of apology to the organization for Kimmel’s controversial show.

For a long time, China and the West have been divided on their conceptions of the freedom of speech. And some Western media outlets like to point accusing fingers at China on the topic. But many cases in China are not a crackdown against freedom of speech as some Western media outlets describe. As Kimmel’s racist show demonstrated, freedom of speech should have boundaries.

The author is an editor with China Daily.