Food Safety Scares In China Prompt Government To Choke Press Freedom

Op-Ed: Faced with China’s chain of food safety scares, the Health Ministry’s answer is to clamp down on journalists. But it is the media’s job to monitor the Health Ministry, not the other way round.

Bejing market (Rafa)
Bejing market (Rafa)
Chen Jieren

BEIJING - Melamine-tainted baby milk, pork from pigs on clenbutero, and exploding watermelons are just a few of ugly cases in a stream of food safety scares to hit China. Some caused illness and death, others turned out to be rumors. But all, real or not, were bad for China's food industry. In response, Mao Qunan, director of the Chinese Health Ministry's Public Information Center, has announced measures to combat and contain "the few media organizations that are deliberately misleading the public."

Their communications are to be monitored, and a blacklist of journalists is to be established. Because food safety reports can be so highly influential, said Mr Mao, "a neglectful and unserious attitude" risked harming the development of China's food industry.

Personally, I believe Mr Mao's approach is ignorant and overbearing; it amounts to naked intimidation. Yes, objective reports of food safety problems can have a negative, short-term impact on the food industry, but it is precisely these reports that enable the government to carry out its duty of supervision, thus promoting quality control in the industry and avoiding future dangers. One should not forget that during the Sanlu baby milk incident in 2008, some officials blamed the media for jeopardising the image of the milk processing industry. Should the milk industry have waited until masses of children had died before cleaning up their act?

The Ministry of Health is the administrative authority of health and safety. Its role is to supervise the fields of health and safety, not to monitor the media. In other words, it is the media's duty to monitor how the Ministry of Health is doing its job, and not the other way around. The minister's words reveal the mistaken attitude held by the Ministry of Health, which has long resisted inspecting the food industry.

Even if some media reports have been misleading, whether purposefully to gain readership or through simple error, most of the media fulfil their duties and remain faithful to the facts. As the administrative authority of health and safety, the Ministry of Health should look positively at the fact that most journalists are doing a good job, while being more tolerant to those whose reports are of inferior quality.

An even more important point is that the food industry and distributors are, like the Ministry of Health, monitored by the media. Whether the media has inspected correctly, or whether some publications have misled their readers maliciously is another question. The Ministry of Health has to defend and justify its position, not identify culprits. If there have been mistakes, the Ministry can complain either to the media organization in question, or to the courts, or to the Press and Publication Department. If the Ministry imagines it is some superior entity that can intimidate and control the press, it is making a huge mistake.

People say "if the media is too clean, then society won't be clean." It is the same philosophy for food safety. If the press is so "clean" that they only write complimentary reports, then hidden dangers will have a chance to ferment. And the public will suffer. If the press raises the alarm and exposes problems, even if inaccuracies sometimes occur, it will promote progress in food safety. When reports turn out to be false, the food industry can always take those responsible to court or complain to the Press and Publication Authority. It is not the job of the health authority to worry about this.

Read the full article in Chinese.

Photo - Rafa

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