On January 9th, reporters and editors at China’s Legal Daily were the first journalists to take the new qualification exam for press credential renewal.
The Legal Daily is an important outlet of Central Propaganda Department and Central Political Law Commission, but the exam affects all media practitioners in both state owned and private media companies.
Every five years, editorial staff at every registered publication has to renew press passes in China, according to a report on the Southern Weekly.
This year is the first time that the State Administration of Press provided official study materials for the qualification exam and required mandatory study time of at least 18 hours.
The exam papers come straight from the administration. A study guide was published and distributed in October 2013. Journalists across China are expected to complete the test within four months.
The study guide, Professional Journalist Training Material 2013, is divided into six units including socialism with Chinese characteristics, the role of journalism in Marxism, journalistic ethics and legislation.
One of the main goals of the exam is to “promote quality journalism in the country,” according to the official notice from the Administration of Press last October.
False reports had been on the rise in recent years, because the nature of online reporting encouraged many journalists to malpractice, said Zhang Zhian at a lecture for local journalists last year. Zhang is the author of the editorial standards section of the study guide.
By creating a standard textbook, a country could potentially avoid collateral social damage caused by low quality journalism. The process of mandatory study time and exams ensure that journalists are constantly reminded of regulations and ideologies set forth by the government.
A top down approach is then justified in a country with limited media freedom like China.
Tan Ye, one of the first journalists to take the exam, told Sohu Media that this exam helped her review legal knowledge, and that she regretted how she had broken the rules unintentionally in the past.
Practice questions obtained from online document sharing platform, Baidu Documents, show the contrast between fundamental principles of Chinese and Western journalistic ethics.
Chinese media “serve the people” while Western media “uphold freedom.” The document also suggests that journalists in China should oppose the notion of “the fourth estate.”
This logic, however, has a strong loophole.
The relationship between the government and media is clearly one of the leader and the led as the government essentially gets to decide what best serves people’s interests in China.
This criticism is a classic argument against communism. When it applies to media, the fundamental concern of the argument is whether the government is always correct.
Without media serving the public watchdog role, the society loses an important tool to hold the government accountable through public opinion. Instead of promoting social stability, such exams aim to dominate what is heard in the public sphere.
“The purpose of this kind of control is just to wear you down, to make you feel like political control is inescapable,” a reporter from Guangzhou told The Guardian.
Indoctrinating journalists with a set of official ideology is not the solution to legitimize the communist government in China. Sudden relaxation of media regulations could cause expression of discontent on a large scale, but avoiding negative media reports and oppressing editorial independence will only lead to more discontent within the society.
A popular social media post among journalists taking the state exam concludes that the key word in right answers is the party, and the party always says the right thing.
The slightly amusing tone behind the message indicates that even though the state can control what journalists could write, those who take the exam do not necessarily believe in their answers.
Letting off steam is crucial to the political progress of China.