OPINION Chen WeihuaEditorialsOp-Ed ContributorsChinese PressColumnistsLETTERSSlidesPhotosBids to rein in watchdog set to backfireBy Chen Weihua (China Daily)Updated: 2009-10-27 07:40Its no surprise for governments anywhere in the world not to enjoy the watchdog role of the press, but those as daring as the one in Dongguan of South Chinas Guangdong province are few and far between.The citys Party publicity department, the overseer of the local news media, announced recently that it would issue a special journalist certificate in order to facilitate the work of reporters.The move, which some think is aimed at blocking journalists deemed unfriendly by the local government, has drawn fire across the country as a gross violation of journalists rights to do their work.That must be highly unexpected for those Dongguan officials responsible for the publicity work.Dongguan is by no means innovative in this regard. Just six months ago, the Yunnan Provincial Higher Peoples Court assigned passes to a selected group of 14 journalists for special access to its court system.That also triggered strong protests from the press, because by granting such a privilege to a select group, the Yunnan higher court had actually denied the majority of journalists their rights stipulated by law.Both actions have challenged the authority of the General Administration of Press and Publication, the sole government institution in the country to issue a press card.The untold message in Yunnan and Dongguan is equally clear: If you are not cooperative, you might never get such a pass.In the past few years, the growing watchdog role played by the news media, especially news organizations from other cities and provinces, has become a big headache for many officials.Its not difficult to tell how upset some officials are when their policies and practices are criticized by the news media. The images of their cities and provinces they have tried to build for years have been tarnished, casting a possible shadow on their career in climbing the official hierarchy.The latest such examples would be about how law enforcement officials in Shanghai used questionable entrapment methods to crack down on illegally operated taxis, how a government department in Xian, Shaanxi province, vowed to ban an estimated 30,000 garbage collectors from picking recyclable stuff in trash bins, and how tourism officials in Yangshuo, Guangxi, pretended they were unaware of the precarious balloon services, which killed a number of Dutch tourists recently.Ironically, debate and criticism of such policies and practices are often much more heated in the media outside Shanghai, Xian and Yangshuo, as local news media tend to be more mindful about confronting the local government.While many officials still like to offer various edicts to the local news organizations, they are troubled by the fact that criticism from outside their jurisdiction is out of their control. Therefore, the idea of producing a special press pass should come as no surprise.Officials in Yunnan and Dongguan have probably not realized that if every city and court follow suit, a journalist has to carry a bag of documents just to prove his identity.In the past few years, many local governments have run training sessions for their officials on how to be news media savvy in the 21st century, when citizen journalists – as many bloggers and netizens are called – have changed the news media landscape.I doubt if those in Dongguan and Yunnan have gone through such sessions. If they did, they must have invited some lousy instructors.The watchdog role played by the outside news media is a good thing now, when local governments can learn something new to better face the new situation.Any attempt to obstruct that work, with any type of excuse, would encounter the same reaction as being faced by the Dongguan government now. A watchdog for the people should bark. Sometimes it has to bite, too.Chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

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