Journalists beware. Hot on the heels of news that Yahoo
provided the information that helped China's state security
apparatus to track down and jail a reporter comes the same company's
announcement that it is to hire a journalist to provide its own
coverage of major global events.
The first item is
troubling enough. The Chinese reporter, Shi Tao, who worked for a
Chinese newspaper, was given 10 years in jail for providing "state
secrets to foreign entities" - the "secrets" being new censorship
impositions that he passed on to two overseas prodemocracy groups.
The juxtaposition of the
second is alarming. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that
Yahoo's news gathering will be driven by the same profits-at-all-
cost mentality behind its cooperation with China's suppressors of
news providers and whistle blowers.
The defense is that
Yahoo operates in China and, like any other resident corporation or
person, must abide by its laws. This sounds reasonable in principle
but is both naïve and disingenuous. As a matter of fact, according
to reports, the identity was established though Yahoo's Hong Kong
operation. Hong Kong is part of China but operates under different
laws and does not yet have all-embracing "state secrecy" laws.
But there are more
fundamental issues. In no particular order they include:
"Just following orders"
is no excuse for unethical behavior. It might be a mitigating
circumstance, but no more. This is unethical by the standards of
The "law" applied was
not subject to test in an open court where the nature of the
"secrets" could be examined.
internationally and should endeavor to follow some common principles
- in the same way as extradition is applied only in cases where
similar laws apply. Assisting in tracking murderers, suicide bombers
and drug smugglers is not the same as handing over providers of what
in most countries would be legitimate news to which the public had a
Yahoo is a leader in the
Internet world. Like its peers, it has made much of the liberating
role of the Internet in spreading news and ideas, of providing
societies with a path of escape from the dead hand of state
censorship. But here it is, actively participating in persecution of
those practicing the freedoms that it preaches.
Yahoo is an
American-owned and -based company. The world - not to mention fellow
Americans - likes to think that its leading companies try to operate
according to the values represented by its constitution. Respect for
America may have been eroded by the likes of Guantánamo, the Patriot
Act and the Iraq war, but people the world over still expect it to
set some ethical examples when issues like freedom of information
are concerned. Yahoo's message is that it cares only about money.
Of course there is
nothing new in media organizations putting profit before principle.
Many have for years avoided coverage of aspects of Singapore
politics for fear of losing some commercial advantage the city-state
offers. Rupert Murdoch is known for buying commercial favors through
media bias. Most notoriously he took the BBC World News off Star TV,
and his HarperCollins backed out of publishing Chris Patten's
account of his governorship of Hong Kong to curry favor with Beijing
for access for his satellite programming.
But the spreading of
this virus of unprincipled greed into the heart of the Internet is
deeply disturbing. Will Google follow suit? Will Skype, now being
acquired by eBay, provide China's state security with digital
records of its Internet voice traffic?
Ironically, all this
kowtowing may prove in vain as far as money-making is concerned.
Foreigners can sell some programming and get some minority stakes in
Chinese media. But Beijing has made it abundantly clear that the
state will retain control of media other than the most peripheral.
The foreigners will be allowed to pick up some scraps of profits to
appear to justify their Chinese investment. But they will have sold
their birthrights - freedom of information and due process - for a
mess of pottage.
As for Yahoo's
journalists, they can expect to risk their lives trying to report
the news from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But don't expect
profits to be risked by sending them to report the whole truth from
countries that can offer streams or dreams of revenue.