Freedom of the Press
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The year 2006 was marked by an increased crackdown on press freedom in China. President Hu Jintao’s administration effectively silenced the press by introducing new media regulations, jailing outspoken journalists, and restricting coverage of breaking news. Article 35 of the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, association, and publication. However, other articles subordinate these rights to the national interest, which is defined by party-appointed courts. The Communist Party maintains direct control over the news media through the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), especially with respect to topics deemed by the party to be politically sensitive. This control is reinforced by an elaborate web of regulations and laws, which are worded vaguely and interpreted according to the wishes of the party leadership. Press freedom was further undermined in 2006 by two new regulations aimed at controlling the distribution of foreign news and media coverage of unforeseen events. In July, the government proposed fines of up to US$12,500 for domestic and foreign news organizations that report “sudden events” (such as protests, disease outbreaks, or natural disasters) without government authorization. Two months later, the official Xinhua News Agency announced in a surprise move that all foreign news would be distributed solely through a Xinhua agent. The new measures allow Xinhua to censor news products from international news agencies if they “undermine national unity” or disrupt China’s “economic and social order.” While the distribution of news by foreign agencies in China was already tightly restricted, these new regulations extend the government’s control over the distribution of economic and financial news by major foreign news providers such as Reuters and Bloomberg.
Throughout 2006, the government increased pressure on the media to ensure compliance with the propaganda standards of the Communist Party. The efforts to control the domestic press reflected a rising number of public protests, the growing importance and availability of independent online news, and the nation’s march toward a market economy that forces the Chinese media to become profitable. In January, the CPD shut down Bing Dian, a weekly news supplement of the China Youth Daily known for its investigative reports and critical opinion pieces. While Bing Dian reopened in March, the weekly’s editor and his deputy were removed from their posts and demoted. In April, the General Administration of Press and Publication, China’s publishing authority, decided to step up controls over “illegal” foreign publications and to freeze the granting of publication licenses to joint ventures.
According to international media freedom watchdogs, 32 journalists and 59 internet-based “cyberdissidents” were in prison in China at year’s end. Two journalists, Wu Xianghu and Xiao Guopeng, died owing to police violence in 2006. Wu was attacked in October 2005 by traffic police who were angry over a recently published exposé. He died in February 2006 following several months of hospitalization. Xiao was attacked and killed by a police officer in July 2006; press freedom groups said the attack might have been linked to a recent article that was critical of local police.
The convictions of two Chinese journalists working for foreign publications in China increased concern that the government was attempting to intimidate foreign correspondents and newspapers. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres, there were at least 25 incidents of arrests, threats, or assaults against members of the foreign press in 2006. The most prominent victim was Zhao Yan, a researcher working for the Beijing bureau of The New York Times who had been jailed in 2004 on a charge of leaking state secrets. While Zhao was acquitted of that charge in early 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in August on a lesser fraud charge related to his work as an investigative reporter for a Chinese magazine in 2001, a charge that was brought six months after he was originally jailed. In a similar case, Ching Cheong, a resident of Hong Kong who worked as a correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times in China, was convicted of espionage and sentenced in August to five years in prison. Ching had been detained during a visit to the southern city of Guangzhou in 2005 and accused of gathering information for an academic organization in Taiwan that China said was a front for the Taiwanese intelligence agency.
Encouraged by the nationwide crackdown on journalists in 2006, local authorities also responded to embarrassing news stories by arresting and imprisoning independent-minded journalists. In January, Zhu Wanxiang and Wu Zhengyou, editors of the magazine Zhonghua Xin Qingnian, were jailed for 10 and 6 years, respectively, for reporting on protesting villagers and a violent demonstration in the city of Lishui. Similarly, Yang Xiaoqing, a reporter for China Industrial Economy News in Sichuan province, was sentenced in June to one year in jail after reporting on alleged corruption among officials in his home county of Longhui.
In an attempt to quell possible concerns over censorship during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese government announced in December that it would not impose travel restrictions on the foreign media. Foreign journalists would be free to travel around China during the 2008 games and to interview organizations and individuals without prior government consent. The new regulations, effective through mid-October 2008, include Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan reporters but do not apply to mainland citizens. Ironically, the former editor of the popular but now closed news website Aegean Sea, Zhang Jianhong, had been arrested in September and charged with “inciting subversion” for posting an essay criticizing China’s human rights record and the poor treatment of journalists ahead of the Olympic Games.
Media reforms have allowed for the commercialization of media outlets without the privatization of 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 running afoul of the CPD, journalists often engage in self-censorship, a practice that is reinforced by frequent ideological indoctrination and a salary scheme that pays journalists only after their reports are published or broadcast. When a journalist writes a report that is 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 outlets combat such deterrents to aggressive reporting by paying journalists for reports that are subject to censorship. This has resulted in a few outlets championing popular causes and printing embarrassing exposures of official malfeasance. Nevertheless, media personnel who engage in such journalism are often fired or arrested.
China has the world’s second largest population of internet users after the United States, with an estimated 137 million people online (just over 10 percent of the population) by the end of 2006. The government employs an extensive surveillance and filtering system to prevent Chinese users from accessing material that is considered obscene or politically subversive. Internet censorship increased sharply after the government introduced new regulations in 2005. The so-called “11 Commandments of the Chinese Internet” bar websites from distributing information that, among other offenses, violates the Chinese constitution, endangers national security, encourages illegal strikes, contains pornographic or violent content, or promotes religious sects. Foreign internet companies have largely cooperated with the Chinese government on censorship enforcement. In January, U.S.-based Microsoft closed the site of a well-known Chinese blogger who used its MSN online service in China to discuss a high-profile newspaper strike at the Beijing News. The Chinese-language search engines of the U.S. firms Yahoo!, MSN, and Google filter search results and restrict access to information about controversial topics such as the Falun Gong, Tibetan independence, and human rights. Yahoo!, in at least four separate cases, cooperated with Chinese police, leading to the jailing of dissidents who had posted subversive information and opinions on the internet. In a positive development for internet freedom, Chinese authorities in November unblocked the Chinese-language version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which had been blocked for about a year.
The government, in its desperate attempt to keep control over the dissemination of information through new technologies such as the internet, email, cellular phones and digital recording engines, has been passing a number of regulations such as those which force bloggers to register with their real names or forbid distribution on the internet of any information prohibited in the traditional media. A large number of reporters and activists were convicted for using the internet to protest human rights abuses or call for greater democracy in China. In January, Li Changqing, a journalist for the Fuzhou Daily, was sentenced to three years in prison for “spreading false and alarmist information” with a report about a 2004 dengue fever outbreak for the U.S.-based online news service Boxun News. Four other online journalists were charged with “inciting subversion to state authority” and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In March, high school teacher Ren Zhiyuan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for an internet article holding that people could rightfully overthrow tyrannical governments by violent means. In May, internet essayist Yang Tongyan (also known as Yang Tianshui) was sentenced to 12 years in prison for posting articles on overseas websites in which he called for the release of Chinese dissidents. In July, Li Yuanlong, a reporter for the Bijie Daily, was sentenced to two years in prison after he posted essays on foreign websites in which he discussed the harsh living conditions of peasants in Guizhou province. In October, Guo Qizhen and Li Jianping were sentenced to four and two years in prison, respectively, for writing essays on foreign websites that criticized the Communist Party leadership and expressed concerns about China’s human rights situation.