How China Gags its Media

Government propaganda machine restricts reporting, issues 'approved' copy.

2011-04-15
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china-media-305.jpg A man reads a magazine beside a newsstand in Beijing in a file photo.
AFP

China has notched up controls over state-controlled media in the wake of recent online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, but some major news organizations are pushing back against a growing wave of directives from the top, journalists said.

Independent journalist and blogger Zan Aizong said China's state-owned media has been increasingly responsive to the desire of the public for accurate information, with editors scrambling at times to make sure reports come out before officials have a chance to ban them.

"Some of the more daring media are reporting major stories with such speed that they get in there before the order forbidding coverage has had time to land," Zan said.

"The joke among journalists is that they publish first, even when the order runs as fast as [champion hurdler] Liu Xiang."

He said some media had made sure to publish the news of the 2008 fire at the headquarters of state broadcaster CCTV overnight.

"By the time the gag order arrived, they had already printed it," Zan said.

Forbidden to report

According to the California-based China Digital Times (CDT) website, journalists were recently forbidden to carry out their own reporting on the spread of radioactive material from the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

"All media are only to use copy circulated from the Xinhua News Agency," a March 29 directive from the ruling Communist Party's powerful central propaganda department, translated and posted by CDT, said.

"Media are not allowed to conduct their own interviews and reports."

Following a speech last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Internet freedom, Chinese media were ordered to post an editorial in response to her outline for U.S. Internet policy overseas.

"All websites are requested to repost, on the front page and in a prominent position, the story, 'Internet Freedom: Unilateralism, Hillary Clinton style,'" said a directive from the State Council Information Office.

"It is not permitted to change the title, and the article must stay on the front page until March 15, 6:00 a.m.," the directive said.

Controls 'stepped up'

Rights activists say that government controls over the media have been stepped up recently in the wake of anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution inspired by uprisings in the Middle East earlier this year.

Indeed, the use of the word "Jasmine" itself was forbidden in a March 2 directive from the propaganda bureau, according to CDT's archive.

Journalists have also been banned from carrying out their own interviews on certain stories related to official corruption, one of the key grievances highlighted by the organizers of the "Jasmine" rallies.

"The only corruption reports the media can run are of those cases that have already been dealt with," said Sichuan-based rights activist Li Yunsheng.

"China hasn't got a media," Li said. "It only has the propaganda tools of the Party."

"We can safely say that this doesn't exist in China: only mouthpieces and propaganda machines do."

More in jail

Both Zan and Li called on the government to relax its stranglehold on the media and to end the oppression of journalists who dare to report the truth.

Last month, Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused Beijing of “gagging” its population with increased censorship that appears to be aimed at “stamping out all forms of freedom of expression.”

Overseas press freedom groups have pointed to a sharp rise in the number of Chinese journalists in jail in the past year, fueled by a series of convictions of ethnic minority writers.

A total of 34 journalists remained in Chinese prisons on Dec. 1, compared with 24 in the previous year, putting China in joint first place with Iran for having the highest number of jailed reporters, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report released in February.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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