Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

No absolute freedom of speech

By Ku Ma (China Daily) Updated: 2013-10-29 07:18

It's a big pity that the Western media rushed to join in the debate sparked by Chen Yongzhou, a Chinese tabloid journalist who was detained on charges of defaming a construction equipment maker, while only a few of them paid much attention to Jimmy Kimmel's "kill every one in China" comment, which should surely have been even more eye catching.

No absolute freedom of speech

Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. [Photo / Xinhua]

Chen has been portrayed by many Western media outlets as the latest "victim" in China's "new curbs on journalists, lawyers and Internet users". ABC talk show host Kimmel praised a boy's idea to deal with US debt crisis by "killing every one in China" as "interesting", which outraged Chinese people, but did not provoke much criticism from his fellow journalists.

These two unrelated incidents raise a common question: speech freedom is a shared value, but what are the boundaries of this freedom?

Freedom of speech should certainly be protected, however, there is no, and can be no, "absolute speech freedom", no matter whether it is in China or in the West.

The tabloid reporter Chen's case is still under investigation. Over the weekend, Chen confessed on State broadcaster Central China Television that he received bribes to invent negative stories about Changsha-based Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. Ltd. New Express, the Guangzhou tabloid that employed Chen, had published two bold front-page pleas for police to release him last week. But on Sunday it issued an apology for the false reports.

CCTV's reports sparked controversy because its images of Chen in handcuffs may lead the public to believe he is a criminal. But before his confession many netizens had supported Chen, insisting he was wronged by Hunan police.

The media should not intervene in justice. Chen should not be considered a criminal before he has been convicted in court, neither should he be portrayed as a victim before then. CCTV's reports, despite being controversial, were a sort of media rebalancing after the majority of online opinion favored Chen against the police.

It' s a basic journalism principle that journalists should base their reports on the facts they discover rather than invent stories, and they should of course not take bribes. If the charges against Chen prove true, the case will be judged and he will be sentenced according to the law.

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