A Year of 'No Progress'

There is no letup in China's state control of the media.

china-weiwei-foreignmedia-3.gif Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (C) talks to the foreign media outside a court in Beijing, Sept. 27, 2012.

The outlook for press freedom in China continued to look grim throughout 2012, with 88 journalists behind bars and no letup in state control of the media during a year of political transition.

Beijing kept up its campaign of arrests, attacks, and acts of censorship against anyone who didn't toe the official line of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, according to an annual report from a Paris-based press freedom group.

China ranked 174th of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The harassment of journalists and citizen journalists was concentrated around the crucial, once-in-a-decade leadership transition in November, the group said in a statement issued with the report.

"The Chinese Communist Party Congress was accompanied by an increase in arrests, attacks, and acts of censorship," RSF said.

"Many media are trying to free themselves of control by the Propaganda Department and local officials, but the Communist Party refuses to loosen its grip on this 'strategic' sector and keeps on inventing new ways to censor," it said.

However, the numbers of Chinese journalists behind bars had remained fairly constant for several years, RSF said, saying there was an overall lack of progress in press freedom in the country.

In total, 30 professional journalists and 69 netizens and citizen reporters are currently in prison in China.

"Most of the hundred or so journalists and netizens currently held are serving long sentences in harsh conditions on charges of subversion or divulging state secrets," RSF said.

"Those who arrest journalists are often local officials concerned about the bad publicity that can result from reports about corruption or nepotism."

Widening focus

But state security police are also widening their focus to include free speech activists and bloggers, who make good use of China's hugely popular social media sites and the limited freedom of expression available online, RSF said.

In November, a Guizhou-based journalist who broke the story about the shocking death of five runaway boys in a dumpster in the southwestern province of Guizhou "disappeared" after being forced into a vehicle by police.

Guizhou-based dissident writer Li Yuanlong, who has made a living as a cutting-edge freelance after leaving his job in state-run media, was taken away by police on the afternoon of Nov. 17 after he posted an online report with photographs on the discovery of the bodies of the boys two days earlier.

The news sparked an online outcry and led to the firing or suspension of eight officials and school staff for negligence.

However, tight constraints remained on mainstream media organizations, which are closely controlled with daily directives by the powerful but secretive Communist Party central propaganda department.

In September, top Chinese investigative reporter Jian Guanzhou, who first exposed the scandal of melamine-tainted infant formula in 2008, quit his job, saying his ideals had been crushed.

Jian, the first journalist to name dairy giant Sanlu as the source of contaminated milk powder in a story for the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post in September 2008, announced he was leaving in a post on China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging service.

"I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals," Jian wrote. "Now my ideal is dead, so I'll get going. Take care, brothers!"

Editorial staff

As the censorship drive kicked in ahead of the 18th Party Congress in November, Chinese authorities removed from their posts top editorial staff at a Shanghai newspaper and the editor-in-chief of the cutting-edge Guangzhou-based New Express newspaper.

In Shanghai, Lu Yan, who headed the Eastern Daily News, and deputy editor Sun Jian lost their jobs, according to a former reporter at the paper, which was known for its coverage of controversial topics like the high-speed rail crash of 2011, the melamine-tainted milk scandal, and the controversial Three Gorges hydroelectric power project.

And in September, authorities in the eastern province of Shandong jailed cutting-edge journalist Qi Chonghuai for 13 years for subversion, after he penned a series of articles critical of local government extravagance.

Qi's wife Jiao Xia, who is in poor health, said she had been left with no breadwinner with two children to care for.

"Because of this, it is very hard for me to keep things going. My daughter is 15 and my son is 13," Jiao said in an interview on Thursday.

"My husband isn't the only journalist to be jailed in China," she said. "Everyone can see the dark side of China, and my husband's detention ... is proof of it."

"The cruelest thing about it is that we are now having a hard time getting by," Jiao said.

Earlier in the year, authorities in Guangdong province also restricted coverage of grassroots elections brought about through unrest in the rebel village of Wukan, with Chinese journalists tweeting that they had been turned back by officials after traveling there to cover the polls, which followed the groundbreaking appointment of key protest leader Lin Zuluan as village Communist Party secretary.

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

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