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English>>China Society

Journalism assistants need clearer legal role and protections

By Jasmine Liu (Global Times)    08:26, February 03, 2015

The recent detention of Zhang Miao, news assistant of German newspaper Die Zeit, has shed light on this special group of journalism professional in China. The story was covered by the Global Times in the editorial "Robust law needed to handle provocation" on January 23. Most overseas media outlets hire Chinese nationals in their China-based offices, where news assistants assume duties from research, translation, fixing interview to arranging logistic support. As a category, they call themselves zhongmi, literally meaning Chinese secretaries.

There is no specific statistics for this group. The number of news assistants in China is estimated at hundreds. To fresh graduates or junior journalists, China office of overseas media is an attractive career platform, where in addition to practicing journalism, they can observe the country from a particular perspective.

In terms of the function of a free press, the gap between foreign and domestic media is shrinking, as Chinese press is increasingly assuming the role of supervising society. Foreign media, primarily those from the West, are in constant conflict with Chinese society. It is open to debate if their reporting style is performing their duty or serving as tool of ideological aggression.

News assistants are left in a legal limbo. A few foreign media outlets hire Chinese nationals as formal staff writers, and in most others, they are not allowed to write byline articles. However, the discouragement not just comes from Chinese authorities. News assistants are not given the respect of fully accredited journalists. Sometimes, interviewees refuse to be interviewed by news assistants, no matter how their professional and language skill is.

There is risk when covering sensitive stories, but that applies to Chinese journalists working for domestic newspapers too. News that reporters being intimidated when doing their job is not unusual. They could be harassed by local authorities, real estate developers or business owners of underground factories. Wise journalists approach the topic carefully, opening the envelope step by step. There is also a professional principle that reporters shouldn't be politically associated with affairs they cover. It could be trickier for Chinese news assistants when they wade into murky territory.

Zhang Miao reportedly posted in her WeChat account her enthusiastic support for the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, which is a questionable act by journalistic standards given her quasi journalistic status.

Angela Kockritz, in her attempt to rescue Zhang, accused China of lacking the rule of law, but it is also revealed that Die Zeit didn't register Zhang, a step required by Chinese authorities for foreign media organizations. Press freedom is indeed a concern for many Chinese news assistants, but they are also upset by their lousy status in the news media where they serve.

Jasmine Liu, a Beijing-based freelance writer and a former news assistant 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Yuan Can,Yao Chun)

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