Freedom of the Press
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Although courageous journalists, activists, and average internet users continued to push the limits of permissible speech in 2008, China’s media environment remained one of the world’s most restricted for both domestic and foreign journalists, including during the Olympic Games hosted in Beijing in August. The year was marked by the arrest of additional journalists and online activists, a blackout on reporting of large-scale protests in Tibetan areas, and the Chinese Communist Party’s employment of more sophisticated methods to control domestic media coverage. Two high-profile incidents—the discovery that shoddy school construction contributed to the death toll from a May earthquake, and the initial cover-up of information on the tainting of baby formula with the chemical melamine—reinforced concerns about the potentially fatal consequences of restrictions that prevented media from exposing malfeasance by officials and powerful economic actors.
Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, association, and publication. However, such provisions are subordinated to the national interest as defined by party-appointed courts, and the constitution cannot be invoked in courts as a legal basis for asserting individual rights. The judiciary is not independent, and judges generally follow party directives, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Vague provisions in the criminal code and state-secrets legislation are routinely used to imprison journalists and other citizens for the peaceful expression of views that are deemed objectionable, especially when it entails criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). According to the Dui Hua Foundation, Chinese law prescribes up to three years in prison for criminal defamation, one of the heaviest such penalties in the world. In recent years, local officials have resorted to criminal defamation charges to detain and in some instances imprison critics; many of these cases have been launched in response to corruption allegations that are posted on the internet. In October 2008, online activist Wu Baoquan was sentenced to one year in prison for defamation after he posted allegations that local officials in China’s Inner Mongolia region had forced people off their land and then reaped the profits from its sale to developers. His appeal of the prison sentence was pending at year’s end. Local officials have also been known to file civil defamation suits against media outlets in retaliation for unfavorable coverage or the exposure of corrupt acts.
The CCP maintains direct control over news media coverage through its Central Propaganda Department (CPD). This control is reinforced by an elaborate system of regulations and laws that are worded vaguely and interpreted according to the wishes of the party. Routinely taboo topics include criticism of party leaders, violations of minority rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, Taiwanese independence, and the Falun Gong spiritual group. Throughout 2008, the CPD issued ad hoc instructions that further restricted coverage of topics related to current affairs, including protests during the Olympics, allegations that shoddy construction materials contributed to the collapse of school buildings in the May earthquake in Sichuan province, and alleged malfeasance by powerful economic actors. In July and August, the authorities suppressed initial reports that infant formula from Chinese dairies might be contaminated with the chemical melamine, fearing that such a revelation would undermine the positive image the government was seeking to present during the Olympics. By the time the story broke in September, an estimated 300,000 babies were discovered to have fallen ill, and six had died. Restrictions on coverage continued after the scandal’s exposure, with the CPD ordering journalists to publish only information obtained from official sources and to avoid reporting on a lawsuit filed in Yunnan province against a government agency charged with ensuring food safety.
During 2008, the authorities also employed more sophisticated means to “guide” news coverage. This included proactively setting the agenda by allowing key state-run outlets to cover events in a timely but selective manner, then requiring that other media and internet portals restrict their reporting to the established narrative. The aim was to preempt less favorable coverage by bloggers, foreign journalists, and more aggressive commercial news outlets. In a typical example of this strategy, just hours after a large taxi-driver strike began in Chongqing in November, the state-run Xinhua news agency issued a detailed dispatch on the topic—one it would not usually cover—that acknowledged the drivers’ economic grievances but downplayed systemic corruption among local party officials that helped to motivate the strike. The Xinhua report eventually circulated in over 100 newspapers, allowing the party’s account to dominate all public discussions of the incident.
In general, journalists who attempted to investigate or report on controversial issues, criticized the CCP, or presented a perspective that conflicted with state propaganda directives continued to suffer harassment, job loss, abuse, and detention. In May, Chang Ping was dismissed from his position as deputy editor of the Southern Metropolis Weekly for writing an editorial that called on the party to grant greater press freedom to those seeking to report on the March riots in Tibet. Similarly, Liu Shui, a journalist and freelance writer, was removed from his post at a financial magazine in Shenzhen and detained for 10 hours for highlighting the prevalence of torture at a local detention center in a 2006 article. Shenzhen officials later ordered Liu to leave the city, claiming that no opportunities for work were available. In November 2008, the authorities announced that only those with government-issued accreditation cards would be considered legitimate journalists, though the extent to which the measures had been implemented remained unclear at year’s end. The announcement raised concerns that the authorities might use such rules to punish more independent-minded reporters for unfavorable coverage.
According to international media freedom watchdogs, at least 29 journalists and 48 cyberdissidents were in prison in China at year’s end, more than in any other country in the world. During 2008, at least 11 individuals, primarily freelance journalists and internet activists, were sentenced to up to seven years in “reeducation through labor” camps or prison for disseminating news or expressing views deemed undesirable by the government. Authorities detained at least 27 others over the course of the year—23 of them between March and August, in the run-up to the Olympics. Some were released within weeks, while others were placed under house arrest or charged with state security crimes. Internet writers working to expose corruption or contributing to overseas dissident news websites were especially subject to prosecution. In May, Qi Chonghuai, a veteran reporter who had worked for print and online publications in recent years, was convicted on fraud charges and sentenced to four years in prison in Shandong province after several of his online articles exposed acts of violence or potential corruption by local officials. Huang Qi, whose website featured investigations into shoddy building materials used in Sichuan schools, was arrested in June and subsequently charged with “illegal possession of state secrets.” After being held in detention for much of 2007, reporter Sun Lin of the banned news site Boxun was sentenced in June to four years in prison after a trial from which both his lawyers and his family had been excluded. Another wave of detentions and harassment followed in December, as over 300 intellectuals, journalists, online activists, and other concerned citizens published a manifesto dubbed Charter 08, which called for multiparty democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary.
On at least five separate occasions during the year, journalists from state-run print and broadcast media were detained on charges of bribery and faced potential imprisonment. Since the detentions came shortly after the journalists investigated or exposed corruption among provincial or city officials, many observers saw the charges as politically motivated. Such suspicions were strengthened by irregularities surrounding the legal procedures in the cases. In one instance in April 2008, journalist Fu Hua of the China Business News was charged with accepting bribes in relation to a story that exposed safety problems in the construction of an airport in Changchun, in northeastern China. After he was released on bail, a hospital examination found that Fu had sustained a fractured rib and other injuries while in custody; his trial was pending at year’s end. On a positive note, at least four journalists, writers, and activists were released during 2008, including Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter imprisoned in 2005 for what many observers believed were trumped-up charges of espionage, and Yu Huafeng, editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily, who had served four years of a 12-year sentence.
Occasional violence against journalists remained a concern in 2008, a year that featured the first known murder of a citizen journalist. Wei Wenhua was beaten to death in January by dozens of municipal security officers as he attempted to film them clashing with protesters in Hubei. Several of the officers were reportedly detained and later charged over the incident. In June, reporters from six media organizations attempting to report on illegal mining in Shanxi province were assaulted by thugs; one journalist was hospitalized. Those expressing critical views of the CCP also faced coordinated campaigns in the official press that sought to discredit them in the eyes of the Chinese public. This tactic was used against the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, after members of the organization protested Chinese rights abuses during the Olympic torch relay; Chang Ping, the deputy editor at the Southern Metropolis Weekly, after he wrote an article questioning the official account of the March riots in Tibet; and foreign media, for their coverage of the events in Tibet. Shortly after such campaigns, the intended targets often reported acts of intimidation, including at least 10 death threats against foreign journalists and their families between March and April, and cyberattacks on the Reporters Without Borders website.
Despite such restrictions, some journalists and media outlets continued to push the limits of permissible coverage. Along with the country’s growing community of bloggers, online commentators, and human rights defenders, journalists played a role in uncovering official corruption, mobilizing citizens for humanitarian efforts, and exposing some rights abuses. In the immediate aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May, several journalists defied initial propaganda department directives to avoid the area, eventually prompting the authorities to allow one of the most open media environments seen in the country in recent years. Within two weeks, however, the CPD and other governmental agencies restored tight restrictions on coverage. Investigative journalism as a whole came under increasing pressure, as local officials took more coordinated measures to prevent newspapers under their jurisdiction from exposing malfeasance by officials in other regions or by powerful business interests.
Owing to technological advancements as well as the efforts of domestic and overseas activists, the suppression of information has become more difficult in recent years. For Chinese with foreign language ability, foreign news reports that are accessible online present an alternative to the perspectives available in the official media. Despite the party-state’s multilayered apparatus for controlling and censoring online content, the sheer volume of internet traffic and the speed with which information can spread has created some space for exposés of local government malfeasance and open political discussions, so long as they do not employ taboo keywords. A growing number of Chinese use proxy servers to circumvent internet restrictions and receive illegal satellite transmissions. Informal religious and political texts also continued to circulate during the year via the internet or in print. These included sensitive biographies of former leaders, texts satirizing corrupt officials, and dissident publications challenging one-party rule, such as Charter 08 and the Nine Commentaries,a collection of editorials initially published in 2004 by the Falun Gong–affiliated Epoch Times that analyzes the history of the CCP and encourages an end to its rule.
However, the government has taken steps to limit access to more diverse sources of information, such as jamming the shortwave radio broadcasts of Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, Sound of Hope, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Following the March protests in Tibet, the government intensified a campaign to confiscate satellite dishes and limit access to VOA’s direct-to-dish Tibet TV service as part of a larger effort to cut off telecommunications to the region (see below). In June, the French company Eutelsat stopped broadcasts into China by the overseas satellite station New Tang Dynasty TV, known for its coverage of human rights abuses and political commentary criticizing the CCP. The company apparently acted under pressure from the Chinese authorities. Security forces throughout the country also continued a drive to “strike down illegal publications.” According to reports on official websites, millions of copies of printed materials were confiscated during the year, including tens of thousands of underground religious and political publications. In the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, provincial officials reported seizing a total of 302,260 publications, of which 1,811 were political, 4,706 were religious, and 7,177 were newspaper periodicals. The crackdown appeared to be especially intense in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where authorities regularly target religious and political materials as part of more extensive controls over the practice of Islam and expressions of dissent. Some of those found to be distributing such information faced arrest or imprisonment.
Foreign journalists’ ability to work also remained severely restricted. On January 1, 2007, a series of new regulations removed travel restrictions on foreign media and allowed journalists to interview organizations and individuals without prior government consent. The authorities permanently extended the regulations in October 2008, though they no longer applied to correspondents from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. Travel to Tibet and other politically sensitive regions continued to require prior approval and close supervision by authorities. As correspondents sought to take advantage of the looser travel rules, incidents of harassment and intimidation of sources reportedly increased compared with previous years. In all, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) confirmed 178 cases of reporting interference in 2008, compared with 160 confirmed incidents in 2007, which was already a significant increase from previous years. Though foreign journalists were at a higher risk for harassment in the restive areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, reporters continued to encounter interference in other parts of the country. In late November, a Belgian television crew reporting on AIDS in Henan was beaten and robbed of their videotapes and money by thugs working for provincial officials.Foreign journalists attempting to report on shoddy construction in Sichuan schools or rural residents seeking redress for local corruption were subject to beatings, harassment, and arbitrary detention. Chinese sources who agreed to be interviewed by foreign journalists were more vulnerable to intimidation than the journalists themselves; one was reportedly severely beaten, while others lost their jobs or faced criminal prosecution.
The authorities did not uphold previous official pledges to enable a fully free media environment and unfettered internet access during the Olympics. A Radio Free Asia broadcaster and a reporter for the Hong Kong–based Apple Daily were denied entry into China during the period surrounding the games, while regulations requiring an employer’s letter to obtain a journalist’s visa restricted access for freelancers. Although a number of previously censored sites were unblocked at the Olympic media center following an international outcry, sites related to Tibet or the Falun Gong remained blocked throughout the games. In June, the authorities introduced new rules that essentially gave government agencies the ability to decide which Chinese citizens would be allowed to work for foreign media outlets. Press freedom watchdogs feared that such regulations increased potential surveillance over correspondents’ activities and hence the danger to their Chinese assistants and sources. During the Olympics themselves, foreign reporters continued to encounter harassment, including 10 incidents involving physical violence.
In the wake of the widespread protests in Tibetan areas that began in March, the Chinese authorities imposed a media blackout on the region, banning foreign reporting, severing telecommunications networks, and increasing penalties for Tibetans who attempted to contact the outside world. Over 25 foreign journalists were expelled from the region. At least seven Tibetan journalists were reportedly among the thousands of people arrested, and four remained missing or in incommunicado detention at year’s end. In October and November, a court in Lhasa sentenced seven Tibetans who had sent information to exile groups to between eight years and life in prison. State-run media were also mobilized in a propaganda campaign to demonize Tibetans.
Media outlets are abundant in China but remain owned by the state, as media reforms have allowed the commercialization of outlets without the privatization of ownership. Most cities have their own newspaper published by the local government or party branch, as well as more commercialized subsidiaries whose reporting is often tabloid-style and can be more daring. According to the BBC, provincial and municipal stations of the state-run Chinese Central Television offer a total of over 2,000 channels. Though all Chinese media are state owned, the majority no longer receive state subsidies and now rely on income from advertisements, which some argue has shifted the media’s loyalty from the party to the consumer. However, this has also opened the door for economic incentives to reinforce political pressure and self-censorship, as publications fear the financial costs of being shut down by the authorities as well as the loss of advertising revenue should they run afoul of powerful societal actors.
The prevailing salary arrangements generally pay 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 his own pocket. A small number of elite media outlets combat such deterrents to aggressive reporting by paying journalists even for reports that are subjected to censorship. This has resulted in a few outlets championing popular causes and printing embarrassing exposures of official malfeasance, though media personnel who engage in such journalism can be fired or arrested. Official penalties can also severely compromise a newspaper’s ability to compete in the market, crippling outlets that overstep the boundaries of acceptable coverage. In September, authorities suspended the China Business Post for three months after it published a piece detailing attempts by officials at the Hunan branch of the Agricultural Bank of China to illegally purge US$700 million in bad assets. To justify its decision, the Chinese government cited a rarely enforced policy that forbids media outlets from reporting on governments outside the region where they are registered. As a result, the newspaper, which has a weekly circulation of 400,000, was forced to lay off at least 70 employees. Corruption among Chinese journalists continued in 2008, with payments from public relations firms to journalists for attending press conferences remaining a fairly common phenomenon. There were also increasing reports of corporations using bribery or other economic ties to pressure officials to censor news stories they considered harmful to their interests.
In 2008, China became home to the world’s largest population of internet users, with an estimated 298 million people online, or just over 22 percent of the country’s population. Though the government has long employed an extensive surveillance and filtering system to prevent Chinese users from accessing material that is considered obscene, harmful to national unity, or politically subversive, efforts to censor and control internet content have increased in recent years. A March 2007 ban by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information Industries on the opening of new internet cafés remained in effect in 2008 (113,000 were in existence at the time of the ban). During the year, sporadic shutdowns targeted foreign-based video-sharing and social-networking sites like YouTube and Facebook. Though a number of overseas websites were unblocked in some parts of the country during the Olympics, others remained inaccessible. By December, the Chinese government had rolled back the modest gains made during the Olympics, blocking the BBC, Voice of America, and other foreign news sites as well as the websites of several Hong Kong newspapers. In addition to blocking content, the authorities have taken steps in recent years to actively guide online discussion. Since 2005, the CCP has recruited and trained an army of web commentators, known as the “Fifty Cent Party,” to post progovernment remarks. Some estimates place their number at over 200,000.
The government took several other steps to restrict internet access during 2008. Acting on its 2007 declaration that all video-sharing websites must be state owned (except for several large examples that had already become influential), the State Administration for Film, Radio, and Television shut down many such sites and demanded that the three major ones—Tudou.com, 56.com, and Youku.com—be closed for several days to conduct a “self-inspection” and ensure that adequate content controls were in place. In October 2008, the authorities instituted a new system of surveillance for internet cafés, requiring that customers have their picture taken and their identification documents scanned by an electronic registration device before they could use a computer. At year’s end, the new surveillance measures had been implemented in at least 1,500 internet cafés in Beijing. Foreign internet companies have largely cooperated with the Chinese government on censorship enforcement. The Chinese-language search engines of the U.S. firms Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google filter search results and restrict access to information about sensitive topics. The government has also been known to monitor personal communications that are used to spread news and information, including e-mails and mobile telephone text-messaging. In September, a group of Canadian researchers unearthed an extensive surveillance system used to monitor communication via Tom-Skype, an online telephone and instant-messaging service. The system filtered parts of messages identified as including politically sensitive keywords, recorded online chats, and logged the personal information of offending users. At least 166,000 censored messages and the personal information of 44,000 users were archived over a two-month period.