Freedom of the Press
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China's authoritarian regime continues to place widespread restrictions on freedom of the press; the constitution, although usually not enforced, affords little protection for members of the media and ensures that the Communist Party (CP) is at the apex of political power. Article 35 guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and publication. However, other articles subordinate these rights to the national interest, which is defined by party-appointed courts. Primarily through its Central Propaganda Department (CPD), the CP maintains direct control over the news media, especially concerning topic areas deemed by the party to be politically sensitive. This control is reinforced by an elaborate web of legal restrictions. The 1990 Rule on Strengthening Management over Publications Concerning Important Party and National Leaders, for example, makes it illegal to report on any aspect of the lives of top leaders without permission from the CPD and other central government ministries. Statutes in the criminal code, such as the Protection of National Secrets Law, can also make reporting on governmental affairs an offense punishable by prison sentences. Regulations and laws are vaguely worded and interpreted according to the wishes of the central party leadership.
In a move to counter criticism that access to information in China is insufficiently transparent, the central government mouthpiece, Xinhua News Agency, announced in September that the death toll in natural disasters would no longer be regarded as a state secret. However, news of infectious diseases and man-made disasters continue to be treated as state secrets and are subject to censorship, as are a number of other topics. As a general rule, any information can be classified as a state secret if its release is believed to have harmed state interests or state security. In March, the new Regulations on the Administration of Book Quality came into effect, requiring publishers to refrain from reprinting books of questionable political correctness and authorizing the government to confiscate banned books that had already been sold. In August 2005, the CPD issued a new order restricting popular access to foreign films and television programs. Nonetheless, with vigorous foreign media operating in China, the regime's task of suppressing information has become more difficult; for Chinese with foreign language ability, foreign news reports present an "alternate" truth to that available in the official media. A growing number of Chinese travel abroad, telephone friends or relatives overseas, and watch a plethora of pirated media products available in urban areas.
In 2005, journalists who reported on controversial issues, criticized the CP, or presented a perspective contrary to state propaganda continued to suffer harassment, abuse, and detention. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that for the seventh year in a row, China had jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, with 32 in prison, half of whom were there on account of internet-related cases. For example, Zhang Lin was arrested in January and found guilty of "inciting subversion" after publishing six articles on the internet criticizing the CP. Foreign correspondents were also not immune from government intimidation. New York Times reporter Zhao Yan remains in prison after his arrest in 2004 for releasing state secrets following an article predicting the retirement of Jiang Zemin. In April 2005, Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong correspondent for the Singapore-based Straits Times, was detained in Guangzhou on suspicion of harming state security by working as a spy for Taiwan. According to Ching's wife, he was working on a story involving Zhao Ziyang, the purged general secretary of the CP.
Media reforms have allowed the commercialization of media operations without the privatization of media ownership. All Chinese media are owned by the state, but the majority no longer receive state subsidies and now rely on income from advertisement revenue, which some argue has shifted the media's loyalty from the party to the consumer. The CPD disseminates directives to media nationwide concerning mandatory use of state propaganda and indicating topics to be barred from reports. To avoid the risk of running afoul of the CPD, journalists often engage in self-censorship, a practice reinforced by frequent ideological indoctrination and by a salary scheme that pays journalists only after their reports are published or broadcast. When a journalist writes a report considered too controversial, payment is withheld, and in some cases the journalist must pay for the cost of news gathering out of pocket. A small number of elite media combat such deterrents to aggressive reporting by paying journalists for reports that are subject to censorship. This has resulted in a few media outlets championing popular causes and printing embarrassing exposures of official malfeasance. Nevertheless, media personnel who do so are too often fired or arrested.
The China Internet Network Information Center estimates the number of internet users at 111 million, large in absolute terms but calculated to be less than 10 percent of the country's population. The Chinese government regularly blocks or shuts down websites it deems politically threatening, such as those that report on incidents of rural unrest. In July 2005, government agencies shut down over a quarter of China's 573,755 websites after their operators failed to register with the Ministry of Information Industry. In September, new regulations were issued that increased the ability of the government to restrict internet news sites, web logs, and cell phone text messaging, which is also subject to monitoring by the government. The same content restrictions applied to print and broadcast media also apply to internet content. Foreign internet companies have largely cooperated with the Chinese government on censorship enforcement. A prominent example of this was the role played by Yahoo! in providing information leading to the conviction of Hunan journalist Shi Tao for leaking "state secrets," which resulted in a 10-year prison sentence.