English language teacher Dianne Haist has complained about an editorial in the Manawatu Standard on 11 October 2005 that names China as an example of a police state. The complaint holds that the reference, contained in an article about earthquakes, is a slur on the Chinese and discriminatory.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The Manawatu Standard editorial, headed “Quake-taming no easy task”, was written in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake that struck northern Pakistan in October last year, killing an estimated up to 100,000. The editorial centred on the peculiar horrors of big earthquakes and the difficulty of preparing for them, including a discussion of whether it was sensible for people to continue living in the most serious danger zones. Making the point that in a free world some people would always choose to ignore the dangers, it referred to China as a “police state” whose population could be required to move.

Specifically, it said: “In a free world, unlike a police state such as China, whose citizens are at the mercy of the dictates of the state, some people will inevitably insist on living in seismologically-dodgy places despite dangers”. Ms Haist said the sentence was discriminatory and cast a slur on the Chinese.

She also said the newspaper had neither responded to her letter of complaint, nor published it. The newspaper has since acknowledged its failure to respond, blaming it on a breakdown of systems: the complaint had gone to a generic email address and never reached the editor. The editor has apologised for the breakdown.

The complaint
The complaint asserts that discrimination arises because the comment does not relate to the editorial topic. “I ask what living in a police state has to do with the title of the item. Nothing. This is outright discrimination, the comment does not relate to the headline.”

In an email to the Manawatu Standard, Ms Haist further says: “Why do I take offence? I belong to the New Zealand China Friendly Society that ‘promotes friendship, understanding and goodwill between the governments with Chinese’, I teach Chinese students at Massey who are well aware of how their government differs from ours, and I take great exception to my local newspaper using an editorial column on the topic of earthquakes to badmouth the politics of another country.” She concludes: “When I read such runaway commentary as this, I hurt too.”

The substantive complaint therefore relates to the Press Council’s principle of discrimination, requiring publications not to place gratuitous emphasis on, in this instance, race. Below this, sits a criticism that a letter of complaint to the Manawatu Standard was ignored and not published.

The newspaper’s response
Manawatu Standard editor Jo Myers stands by the words used in the editorial, citing the following dictionary definition of a police state: “A totalitarian state controlled by a political police force that secretly supervises the citizens’ activities”. She says this is a fair comment about the political state in China, “as evidenced by incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the banning of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, the fact that western news agency websites such as the BBC are inaccessible in China, and most recently, a decision by the web search company Google to censor its search services so it can gain greater access to the Chinese market”.

She defends the editorial’s reference to China in a discussion of whether all people have the freedom to choose where they live, saying, “places like China have been seriously affected by devastating earthquakes”. The headline fairly reflected the thrust of the editorial, and could not be expected to relate to every word within it. Far from the terminology being discriminatory, it was “a legitimate statement of fact”.

Mrs Myers apologised for not responding to the initial complaint, saying she had no knowledge of it, and that there appeared to have been a breakdown in her newspaper’s systems, which would be addressed.

An editorial is an editor-directed opinion piece expressing a newspaper’s views, usually on matters deemed to be of public importance. It is widely understood by readers to be opinion. As such, this Council has consistently upheld newspapers' rights to present views that for many reasons might upset some sections of the community.

That freedom is not unbounded: editorials are still required to be accurate and not to overstep ethical lines as expressed in the Council’s Statement of Principles. In this case it is the Council’s view that no such line has been crossed. The editor is entitled to pay attention to recent and not-so-recent events in a country’s history and to make judgments about the nature of its governmental controls. That is especially so in a democracy.

On the question of non-reply to the first email of complaint, it’s important that editors be as thorough as possible in ensuring all complaints are responded to. But Mrs Myers has apologised and that is accepted. Subsequent non-publication of the letter of complaint is the newspaper’s prerogative.

While some might see criticism of another country’s government as hurtful, freedom of speech, within the boundaries already alluded to, is a fundamental right of a newspaper functioning in a democracy. The Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Lynn Scott, Aroha Puata, Penny Harding, Ruth Buddicom, Denis McLean, Terry Snow, Alan Samson, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, and John Gardner.


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