Yahoo’s mess of pottage

Philip Bowring – The International Herald Tribune

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2005
HONG KONG 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 Western journalism.
The “law” applied was not subject to test in an open court where the nature of the “secrets” could be examined.
Yahoo operates 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 reasonable right.
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.
IHT Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com


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