Oh, (Big) Brother

China’s “fake reporters”: scourge or scapegoat?

If it looks like a reporter, and acts like a reporter…it might just be a criminal posing as a reporter in an effort to blackmail and extort you with the threat of negative press coverage.

The “fake journalist” problem is apparently a large one in China, where, according to the state-run China Daily, “statistics show that 150 fake reporters and 300 unregistered publications were detected during a nationwide campaign…to crack down on fake reporters.”

We in the States are learning about the supposed scourge right now because the China Daily—seemingly inadvertently—just revealed, in an article praising the government’s crackdown on these “bogus reporters,” that China’s General Administration of Press and Publication has been building a database of foreign journalists who have thus far been accredited to cover the Olympic Games. “The authorities are building a database of overseas reporters’ profiles for the reference of interviewees,” the paper writes. “A database of the 8,000 overseas reporters who will be allowed inside of Olympic venues has been completed, while a database of the 20,000 foreign reporters to be allowed to work in China during the Games is being built.”

But the database, ostensibly part of the crackdown on “fake reporters” and unlicensed publications that China launched in August, seems aimed as much at retribution as reference. “Fake reporters, especially those representing overseas-registered media, harm society and deserve severe punishment,” GAPP minister Liu Binjie told the China Daily. “Disguising reporters to threaten and intimidate others to collect money is cheating and very dangerous to society.”

Among the international media, however, the story bigger than the “fake reporter” scourge was the foreign-journalist database. And the fact that it might, just maybe, be targeted less at fake reporters and more at real ones. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for one, expressed “alarm that the government’s plan, which includes amassing records of thousands of foreign journalists seeking Olympics accreditation, is a pretext to block critical reporters from covering the Games.”

In other hands, a database like this one would seem more innocuous than insidious, an efficient way to store information, and nothing more. But in a country with extremely limited media—a country whose government still (despite its erstwhile promises to reform itself before the Olympics) threatens reporters, monitors their communications, and censors their stories—a reporter-tracker of this magnitude takes on an ominous “Big Brother” quality.

And it’s hard to know where to look for solid answers about the database itself: another government official, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, told the China Daily earlier today that “there is no such database and I have not heard of a plan for setting up such a database.” But, then, the (state-run) China Daily and the (state-run) Xinhua news service that feeds it are Party megaphones. Here are some stories on the China Daily’s Web site today: “China growth will benefit world economy,” “Dalai Lama’s words hold no credibility,” and an online chat on the topic of “China: A Role Model to All Nations.”

Talk about fake journalism.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.