By Peter Feuilherade
China's national press regulator has banned journalists and newspapers from accepting and extorting money in return for favourable news coverage.
The death of a reporter at a coal mine alarmed officials
"Local newspaper branches and their staff reporters are not allowed to engage in any extortion by threatening to expose inside stories," said a circular issued by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP).
The ban also applies to "paid news, forced subscription and forced advertising" in return for complimentary reporting, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.
"Fake" journalism by people who pretend to be reporters for the purpose of extorting money from corrupt officials and businessmen has been a feature of China's media scene for many years.
The GAPP also banned government officials from working as part-time reporters, and reaffirmed a requirement that reporters carry a "journalist's certificate" issued by the press regulator.
The Xinhua report referred to the case of Lan Chengzhang, an employee of the northern Shanxi Province office of the Beijing-based China Trade News, who was beaten to death in January 2007 during his investigation into an unlicensed coal mine in Shanxi, by thugs hired by the coal mine owner.
Local officials claimed Lan did not have official certification so he was not a legitimate journalist. They also suggested he may have been seeking payoffs in return for not reporting problems at the mine.
Xinhua also recalled that in May 2006, four newspaper staff reporters previously working for local branches of the Beijing-based China Food Quality Newspaper and three other newspapers were arrested for extortion.
The four journalists demanded money from institutions or companies "after learning about irregularities there", the agency reported.
"News with bonus"
"In China, it is not uncommon for journalists to openly accept envelopes stuffed with cash at press conferences from companies seeking positive or prominent coverage," Reuters news agency reported from Beijing.
James Kynge, the Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing from 1998 to 2005, wrote in his recent book "China Shakes the World" that the practice called "you chang xinwen" (news with bonus) has become a staple of the newspaper business.
"The practice is so blatant that the PR companies which organize news conferences inform their corporate clients airily that `everybody does it' and advise them on how much money to insert into the envelopes," Kynge wrote.
However, there have also been many instances of genuine investigative journalists being accused of extortion to prevent them from publishing reports on corruption or abuses of power.
Chinese media analysts say that stricter qualifications should be imposed on China's estimated 750,000 journalists to ensure they are better qualified, ethically as well as professionally.
But while China's underpaid journalists rely on "extra income", and with newspapers under intense pressure to raise revenues, the practice of "news with bonus" is likely to linger in some form.