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Saturday, July 11, 1998 Published at 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Courtroom TV comes to China

Experts in the studio comment on the court case

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt: "a change from the usual Saturday morning TV"
China has for the first time broadcast a live court case on nationwide television.

The case involved 10 film companies which had brought an action against several media agencies for breach of copyright.

[ image: A shopper watches the trial on TV through a shop window]
A shopper watches the trial on TV through a shop window
After more than four hours of legal arguments, the court ruled against the defendants, imposing fines and ordering them to desist from violating copyrights.

The BBC correspondent in Beijing describes the lavish production as more of a documentary than a courtroom thriller.

Introductory music followed by Chinese TV announcer (in Mandarin)
He says the programme's opening graphics - featuring the Chinese characters meaning law, fair, just and open - made clear that Chinese TV viewers were facing a change from the usual Saturday morning entertainment.

Viewers watched claim and counter claim about whether two distributors and a copyright agency had received permission to sell the films on video compact disc.

One of China's best-known TV newsreaders analysed the issues in the studio with two academics.

Lawyers for both sides called and questioned witnesses in a modern courtroom, apparently filled with ordinary members of the public - another new innovation by the same court.

Viewers who sat through the entire broadcast saw the judge award the film studios compensation on some of the charges and postpone the verdict on others.

Officials said the screening of the case was a sign of openness in China's legal system, which is usually shrouded in secrecy.

Observers noted that the court was the same one in which leading dissidents have previously been given long jail terms in trials widely criticised by human rights groups.

Clinton's call for openness

An open legal system was an important topic during US President Bill Clinton's recent visit to China.

[ image: Clinton called for freedom]
Clinton called for freedom
China has given increasing prominence to the idea of the rule of law in recent months.

But the BBC Beijing correspondent says that some of China's changes to its legal system have been seen as a way of diffusing foreign criticism of its human rights record.

Trials of prominent dissidents have been described as open in the past when in fact foreign observers and media were barred.

Real change?

Yet legal experts say the latest moves do indicate signs of changes in some areas of civil law.

Some observers have suggested it may be no coincidence that the case chosen for live broadcast involves intellectual property rights, an issue which two years ago brought China to the brink of a trade war with the US and which it is anxious to be seen to be taking seriously.

The Chinese News Agency said the move was an important step towards reforming both the legal system and media reporting in China, and that Xiao Yang, President of the Supreme Court, had ordered the move personally.

"Xiao Yang underlined in a recent speech that open trials, which are mandated by the constitution and the law, should be put fully into practice," it said.

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