Press freedoms came under greater attack in China this year amid increased government censorship and attacks on individual journalists, according to media experts and rights monitoring groups.
In perhaps the most notable case of media control during the year, Chinese authorities blocked all news inside China of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, now serving an 11-year prison term for “subversion” after authoring a petition calling for greater freedoms in China.
China’s leaders are determined to prevent the Chinese people’s unfettered access to information, Chinese media experts told Radio Free Asia.
“They know that once freedom of expression and the press is guaranteed for the people, this will mark the end of their despotic system,” said Hu Ping, the New York-based editor-in-chief of the Chinese language magazine Beijing Spring.
“Therefore they must press the lid down tightly, trying not to leave open even a crack,” Hu said.
Jiang Weiping, a Chinese journalist based in Canada, added, “The Chinese government is now trying desperately to strengthen control over people’s minds.”
“They have expanded the spread of propaganda, generalized surveillance and crackdowns on journalists, and turned China into the world’s biggest netizen prison,” Jiang said.
Even with these setbacks, Chinese journalists have sought to work around the restrictions placed on them, Jiang said.
“Following the Dec. 10 Nobel Prize ceremony, during which laureate Liu Xiaobo was represented by an empty chair, the words ‘empty chair’ became a hot item in Chinese cyberspace,” he said.
“And on Dec. 12, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most popular newspapers, ran an ambiguous cover image featuring three empty chairs.”
“The picture created a widespread sensation,” Jiang said.
Hu noted that Chinese journalists and intellectuals now increasingly use social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information.
“Some bloggers bravely challenge the authorities by posting free comments on blogs and microblogs, even though they have seen those posts censored and images removed.”
“This game between online activists and Internet censors will continue, showing greater space for making progress,” Hu said.
Attacks on journalists
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities often ignore assaults on journalists, thus emboldening their attackers, Jiang said.
As an example, Jiang pointed to the Dec. 18 beating of Northern Xinjiang Morning News reporter Sun Hongjie by five men—an attack that left the muckraking journalist brain-dead for ten days until his death on Dec. 28.
“This was because he recently reported on forced evictions in Kuytun city,” Jiang said, “but the local authorities say the physical attack resulted from a private argument.”
Retired Communist Party officials and groups monitoring press freedoms worldwide meanwhile noted China’s tightened controls over the media during the year.
In October, 23 Party elders defied China’s censors by calling in an open letter for greater freedom of expression. Authors and signers of the appeal included Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui and former People’s Daily editor Hu Jiwei.
The letter was deleted several hours after its posting on sina.com, one of China’s most influential websites.
In April, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists called on China to end all actions limiting press freedoms in the country.
And in October, the Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders listed China as 171st, or eighth from the bottom, on its Press Freedom Index 2010.
Reported by He Ping for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Chen Ping. Written in English by Richard Finney.