Foxconn seen as bullying the media

Raymond Li
31 May 2010

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou’s invitation for reporters to tour its Shenzhen factory after a spate of suicides was a dramatic departure from the firm’s usual approach to the media.

The company’s hawkish stance was notably played out in the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court in August 2006, in a high-profile defamation case against two mainland journalists.

Foxconn sued China Business News reporter Wang You and her editor Weng Bao for defamation, demanding 30 million yuan (HK$34.2 million) in compensation.

The company, a major supplier of many of the world’s top electronic gadget manufacturers including Apple and Dell, had also obtained a court order a month earlier to freeze the assets of Wang and Weng.

Wang wrote a two-part series in June 2006, documenting inhumane working conditions at the company’s Shenzhen factories – including excessively long hours – which Foxconn denied.

The reports followed a similar piece earlier that month in British newspaper the Sunday Post, which angered Gou, but did not result in a lawsuit despite his threats.

At the time, media analysts were shocked by Foxconn’s move to single out an individual reporter and editor at a Chinese publication through the courts.

The case was seen as bullying tactics by Foxconn, which is believed to be well connected to the Shenzhen government.

A public backlash eventually prompted Foxconn to drop the defamation case, but it effectively served to stifle media criticism of the company on the mainland. Afterwards, Shenzhen media began reporting positive stories on the firm’s contribution to the local economy.

But analysts such as Baptist University Professor Huang Yu say the court case was a miscalculation by Foxconn, as it failed to take on board criticism of working conditions at its factories that could have helped avoid fallout from this year’s suicides.

Huang said a company like Foxconn could manipulate opinion. “But suing media outlets is only a shortlived victory for the company as it only covers up its many underlying problems,” Huang said.

Zhou Ze , a lawyer specialising in media law, said both the company and the media should reflect on how they have dealt with the suicides at Foxconn.

Zhou said the media should consider whether its reporting has been biased against Foxconn by labelling the company a sweat shop.

“Any public discussion of the suicides at Foxconn should be put in a broader social context instead of treated as a challenge for one single company,” Zhou said.

The media should report not only the suicides but the wider social issues and the sense of despair among young Chinese, which could be linked to the deaths, he said.

But government censors last week ordered some mainland media outlets to scale back or stop coverage of the Foxconn suicides amid growing fears that copycat suicides could follow.

Huang said the media had a responsibility to provide balanced reports and should be allowed to do their job freely. “The problem does not lie with media reporting, or at least the media should not be blamed.”

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