By Li Lei, Global Times
The arrest of 46 fake reporters accused of blackmail in northern Shaanxi’s Yulin city makes Chen Xiaoyi (pseudonym) excited. “After 10 years of chaos, it’s the high time to leash in this problem.”
Chen, a former news reporter with 20 years of working experience in journalism, said since the year 2000 people falsely claiming to be licensed news reporters have demanded bribes in the form of “sponsorships” in exchange for keeping silent about real transgressions by coal and other companies in Yulin and Yan’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.
Located in northern Shaanxi, the two cities are rich in natural resources such as coal, natural gas and oil. “In 2007, the situation became widespread, and since then blackmail has become synonymous with the areas,” said Chen.
A manager of a coal processing enterprise in Yulin said the company has been repeatedly harassed by fake reporters “soliciting sponsorship” in exchange for withholding negative news about the enterprise. “They would ask for sponsorships, selling newspaper subscriptions or advertisements during the ‘interview.’ But we have never seen a single copy of a newspaper after we paid the money,” said the manager, news website thepaper.cn reported.
The trend of fake reporters in northern Shaanxi started with advertising sales agents of print media in the beginning of this century, when advertising suddenly became the main revenue source of China’s media industry, according thepaper.cn. The trend continued into the social media era, with fake reporters no longer needing a connection to print media to be able to damage a company.
From crusader to blackmailer
A fake reporter surnamed Ma was arrested this August on charges of extortion and blackmail. Ma has committed as many as 20 crimes with illegal gains of over 800,000 yuan ($125,000). Ma did this using the power of his own social media accounts.
Liu Bo (pseudonym), a local reporter who is familiar with Ma, told thepaper.cn that after graduating from a university in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Ma was trying to do business online. In 2013, he turned to social media and made money by ghostwriting on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, with a price of 400 yuan ($58) per article. He charged an additional 2,000 yuan to publish the article on his personal media account.
“Ma did some good things such as exposing the unfair and unjust treatment of weak groups. He became an influencer on social media. As more ‘negative reports’ were published on his account, companies and organizations he exposed would pay him money to delete the reports,” Liu said.
The above-mentioned coal processing enterprise manager said that Ma blackmailed coal mines with threats to publish real information about security incidents and environmental pollution. “Once the allegation was investigated and confirmed, the coal mines faced penalties ranging from tens of thousands yuan to hundreds of thousands of yuan, in addition to criminal liability. Therefore, most coal mines that Ma targeted would pay him money to avoid investigations from the authorities.”
Cleaning up the mess
The Yulin Public Security Bureau launched a special operation to clean up the city’s media environment this year. Scheduled from August 1 to October 30, the operation was praised as a “thunder strike” by Yulin Daily, the city’s official newspaper.
As of September 10, the Public Security Bureau of Yulin had cracked a total of 146 criminal cases of fraudulent reporters involving 8.95 million yuan ($1.4 million) in bribes solicited by both fake and licensed reporters, and detained 46, according to reports by local official media.
“The number is increasing as the three-month special operation continues,” an official with the Yulin Public Security Bureau told the Global Times.
Li Bo, head of the Yulin Publicity Department, said the special operation to clean up the media environment will be the priority of the city government, reported the local official media.
Liu Mao (pseudonym), a manager of a coal processing company in Fugu county of Yulin, told thepaper.cn that the county has more than 70 coal mines that provide coal to countless processing companies. “Dozens and even hundreds of ‘reporters’ would swarm in two or three days after an incident was disclosed in a company. They would say nothing but shoot everywhere with a camera until the company talked to them, and then they would raise a request for ‘sponsorship.'”
Liu Mao said that the sponsorship they request usually included newspaper subscriptions and advertisement orders. The money required to order newspapers was generally less than 10,000 yuan, but the value of advertisements the company was requested to buy could be anything.
There are over a dozen coal mines in a town of Fugu county. A coal mine manager told thepaper.cn that almost every coal mine has “sponsored” these “reporters.” “There is no choice but to give them money because the companies would pay way more than the ‘sponsorship’ if the violation is exposed, let alone the criminal liability. No one would take the risk. It’s like they bought a protective talisman with the money.”
Creative revenue stream
Local journalism practitioner Chen Xiaoyi blames sloppy management by local media. “[In the beginning,] almost every fake reporter was backed by a media company. The fake reporters were advertising agents for these media,” Chen told thepaper.cn.
Chen recalls that in the end of the 20th century, printing factories and newspapers were able to make a profit in northern Shaanxi, because they were financially supported by the government. “Blackmail from reporters was unheard of at that time.
Many newspapers experienced financial difficulties after 2001, around the time the government pulled back media subsidies as a part of national economic structural reform. “After that, many newspapers set up an interim advertising department because advertising was eventually found to be the most profitable method,” Chen said. “During that period, all the newspapers were profit-oriented.”
Chen told thepaper.cn that in 2003, some newspaper offices outsourced their advertising departments in order to increase their advertising business. Chen believes that the outsourcing is the root cause of northern Shaanxi’s rampant number of fake reporters.
Securing an outsourced adverting contract from a newspaper cost the contractor hundreds of thousands of yuan a year up front. In order to fill the gap, contractors hired a large number of local advertising agents.
“The advertising agents claimed to be reporters from print media they represented, and people would undoubtedly believe their identities. This is how it became difficult to distinguish fake reporters from real ones,” said Chen.
With large numbers of coal mines and electric power plants, Yulin is a natural haunt for fake reporters to carry out fraudulent “sponsorship soliciting,” a method of blackmail.
Huang An (pseudonym), a journalist in Yan’an, a city near Yulin, told thepaper.cn that competition among municipal-level media for advertising in northern Shaanxi became fierce in 2004.
Without the authorization to establish an official bureau in the area, media organizations assigned reporters to work out of their homes.
The move made it more difficult to distinguish fake reporters from real ones. This was the start of unchecked blackmail, with tactics becoming increasingly fierce, said Huang.
“Although most of the media were small tabloids, and some of them were barely read, they were deterrent enough for those companies targeted by the fake reporters,” said Huang.
Fake reporters, who at this time were mostly contracted advertising agents, targeted companies that had missing paperwork, violated the law or regulations, had safety incidents, or were involved in environmental pollution.
In time, the pool of fake reporters grew to include anyone with a popular social media account, or had a friend with a popular social media account or who was a reporter.
Willing to pay
Many companies have been able to spot fake reporters over these years. However, many are willing to pay them anyways.
A coal mine manager said, “Even if the companies knew they were not real reporters, they still dare not to refuse the fake reporters, because there is a real reporter behind a fake reporter.”
A manager with a magnesium company in Shenmu, another city near Yulin, said that many companies would check the reporters’ licenses, but gave up on the procedure eventually. “Not only do the companies know that the fake reporters have no journalist’s license, but they also know that the fake reporters have real access to platforms to spread negative reports about the company.”
Huang said that some licensed reporters would collude with fake reporters because they covet the money but dare not directly attempt blackmail.
“No matter what kind of reporter they are, fake or real, they have access to the media, which makes the companies vulnerable,” Huang said.
Yulin’s special operation is a part of China’s nationwide “Autumn Wind Operation 2018” launched by the country’s anti-pornography and anti-illegal publications office. The special operation this year aims to crack down on illegal and pornographic publications and remove fake media, fake news bureaus and fake reporters.
Over 80 cases involving media fraud have been closed in the first eight months of this year, according to a report by Xinhua on September 18.
In 10 typical cases announced by the office on September 17, cases of media fraud occurred in five other provinces including Shanxi, Shandong, Henan, Helongjiang and Zhejiang.