New York, August 14, 2007 – The Committee to Protect Journalists is disappointed by the severe criminal penalties handed down by a Chinese court in the case of Zi Beijia, a Beijing TV reporter accused of fabricating a story about contaminated buns. On August 12, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court found Zi guilty of “infringing commodity reputation” and sentenced him to one year in prison, according to the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua.
Xinhua reported that Zi, a temporary employee at Beijing TV, pleaded guilty to the charge, saying he was “muddle-headed” when he produced the story about steamed buns filled with cardboard instead of meat or vegetables. The news broke amid a flurry of scandals about tainted food, drugs, and other goods produced in China.
“Imprisonment is a disproportionately harsh penalty for making up a story,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Zi’s actions already cost him his job with Beijing TV, as well as his professional reputation.”
Altogether, six Beijing TV employees were either reprimanded or fired for their roles in the scandal, according to Xinhua. Beijing TV also issued a public apology.
Simon noted that, in a related development, executives at 60 Chinese newspapers had signed a declaration pledging to root out fabricated news and strengthen the media’s credibility. “The Chinese media should be left alone to govern themselves—to hire good reporters and fire bad ones, and to report freely on matters of public interest,” he said.
Zi was arrested after police investigations found no cardboard in buns sold by various venders in Beijing, according to news sources. The court held that Zi deserved serious punishment for intentionally submitting false news, which had severely damaged the reputation of some businesses in the food industry.
Zi reportedly confessed in court that he had instructed four migrant workers to make pork buns stuffed with cardboard he provided, and then filmed them at work using a hidden camera. The four workers have filed their own defamation case against Beijing TV, according to Xinhua.
Despite Zi’s confession, there has been continuing speculation that the journalist was a scapegoat with a genuine story. Web sites and online chat rooms featured comments raising questions about the credibility of the police investigation and about the methods used by officials to stop the story from circulating further. The China Digital Times Web sitereported that the Propaganda Department issued a notice to the media after official investigations concluded that the cardboard-filled bun story was fabricated, barring all newspapers from reporting the event further.
The Hong Kong daily Ming Pao reported that when its own journalist attempted to visit the site where Zi produced the bun story—Number 13 courtyard in Shizikou village, in Beijing’s Chaoyang district—he found a heavy security presence as well as a number of men in plainclothes who seemed to be keeping watch. One of the men reportedly warned him, “If you dare to go in, you better be careful that someone will beat you up.” The reporter returned later in the day, after attempting to secure assistance from the town government, only to be told by a woman that a town leader had just called to warn locals not to let any reporter in.
“Many people in Beijing believe that the news about the cardboard buns story being fake is itself fake,” wrote the publisher of the Danwei Web site. “The way the authorities have gone about stopping the story is exactly the same way they clamp down on real news stories they don’t want circulating.”