Chinese Media, Courts Remain Wary of Each Other, Says Professor Benjamin Liebman

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New York, Jan. 4, 2011—Relations between the court system and media in China are increasingly a two-way street, as both institutions serve as a check on the other to improve standards while seeking to expand their autonomy and influence, according to a new essay by Professor Benjamin Liebman.
“Media coverage is forcing the courts to act more carefully—and perhaps fairly. But pressure from the courts is also resulting in greater attention to factual reporting and professional standards in the media,” writes Liebman, director of the Law School’s Center for Chinese Legal Studies.
The essay appears in Changing Media, Changing China, published by Oxford University Press, edited by Susan L. Shirk.
Liebman, who will be part of a panel discussion about Chinese media on Jan. 6 at the Asia Society in New York, has extensively studied the ever-shifting tides that dictate government and judicial attitudes toward newsgathering in China. What he has found is a media that is freer, but hardly free, especially when it comes to the court system.
“Over the past 15 years, the Chinese media have undoubtedly become one of the most important actors in the legal system,” Liebman writes, noting that the media readily champions victims of injustice and serves as a check on official abuses and corruption. That can pressure courts to act fairly.
At the same time, however, “media coverage encourages party officials to intervene in the courts, predetermining the outcome and reaffirming Chinese Communist Party oversight of the judiciary.”
As Liebman sees it, that problem is exacerbated by a judiciary that is very much a work in progress, rife with “corruption and incompetence,” and which pays little attention to procedural law. However, greater media scrutiny has led to “increasing transparency” in the legal system.
“Judges comment that it is far more difficult to conceal illegitimate decisions today than in the past because a single posting online can spark nationwide coverage,” Liebman writes. “As a result, judges are paying more attention to issuing well-reasoned decisions that follow the law.”
However, judges often feel goaded into ruling in a certain way based on popular sentiments fomented by media reports, some of which are encouraged by the government. Liebman writes this is most apparent in criminal cases.
Media intervention “leads (party) officials to issue instructions to the courts that result in rapid trials and harsh punishments. The media then declare victory, noting that the courts have acted in line with popular demands,” according to Liebman.
All this does not mean the media has free rein when it comes to reporting on court proceedings. In fact, Liebman notes that at the same time judges cultivate cordial relationships with journalists because some courts reward judges for positive coverage, most courts routinely impose limits on what can be reported and when.
Moreover, judges exercise their displeasure of coverage by presiding over a “sharp increase” in defamation cases, which media outlets usually lose. Liebman’s research found that has led to journalists being more careful with fact-checking, corroborating information and presenting both sides of a story.
In the end, though, such battles are muted, as both the courts and the media remain arms of the state. The parrying allows Chinese leaders to at least appear responsive to public views.
“The institutional backdrop explains why neither press coverage of legal issues nor court retaliation against the media overstep permissible boundaries,” Liebman writes. “Both are playing by the rules of the game: various state institutions provide checks on each other, and the (Communist Party) serves as the referee.”
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