NEW YORK, 23 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The report is considered groundbreaking in its precise and detailed description of the instruments of censorship in a rapidly changing Chinese society. It shows how a system of control that originated under classic totalitarian conditions is being adjusted, refined, and modernized to meet the agenda of the current Chinese leadership -- market economy with complete political dominance.
(To read the complete Freedom House report, click here.)
Ashley Esarey, a Freedom House analyst and the author of the report, tells RFE/RL that during the 1990s mass media in China was less restricted because then-President Jiang Zemin believed more freedom meant a better way to fight corruption.
Less Freedom Under Hu
"He seems to have been of the impression that allowing more media freedom could be better for fighting corruption in the party and could facilitate economic development," he said. "Hu Jintao, the current president, seems to have a different perspective -- he has tightened control over many media. It has been a gradual process but one that in the last two months has become much more apparent."
Esarey says that the treatment of particular subjects by the Chinese media, for instance Chinese history and the SARS epidemic -- or the development of democracy in China and Taiwan -- illustrates that there has been a tightening of media control after Hu came to power in 2003.
"Major indications are the removal of important editors at newspapers that have been particularly critical of the Communist Party or have addressed issues that are seen as politically controversial," he said. "Media that have tackled issues like that have had editors removed or in some cases have even been shut down."
The Chinese government, the report says, increased monitoring of the media personnel and news content, discouraged traditional media from forming joint-ventures with foreign firms, tightened control over the Internet, and resorted to more frequent coercion of journalists reporting on politically sensitive topics.
The propaganda department of the CCP decides what is acceptable news and then they send out documents to all media in China letting them know what is appropriate and what is not.
"For particularly sensitive topics, often notices from the propaganda department to the media are made by telephone so they are informal and there's no record kept of suppression of a certain news story," Esarey said. "In China, what is acceptable for reporting or not acceptable can change."
Elizabeth Economy is the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based policy institute. There are directives from Beijing on the acceptable news content, she says, but much of what is decided is done in an ad hoc way. It could be the Ministry of Propaganda, the Ministry of Public Security, Internet police in major Chinese cities, local officials; there are all sorts of subdirectives or instructions. But the real challenge for journalists in China, Economy tells RFE/RL, is to figure out where the boundaries of acceptability are.
"There's a constant process of sort of pushing by journalists and bloggers, etc, pushing the limits and then seeing where they get pushed back," she said. "But I don't know that there's much, frankly, in the way [as to what is] clearly defined [and] what's OK and what's not with the exception, of course, of things that are calling for the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party or advocating a lot of support for Falun [Gong, a spiritual movement considered politically subversive by Chinese authorities]."
One of the challenges that the Chinese media had faced over the past few years is that now they are required to become self-sufficient and profitable. From the one side, Economy says, Chinese mass media are pushed to operate as free-market enterprises, but from the other side they must abide by the CCP regulations. To attract an audience they now also have to compete among themselves. This has led to the rise of entertainment -- often a sensationalistic and intimate type of coverage that is likely to attract attention.
"The same people that are cracking down on issues like democracy and Falun Gong are concerned about things like 'spiritual pollution,'" Economy said. "And every several years -- maybe five to seven years -- China is likely to have a 'spiritual pollution' campaign and 'anti-spiritual pollution' campaign which means that they don't like what they perceive to be coming from the West: sex, the freedoms, drug use; all of these very sensationalistic television programs."
Besides the very broad "Protection of National Secrets Law" promulgated in May 1989, right before the Tiananmen Square massacre, a far more common source of concern for investigative Chinese journalists, the report says, is the libel law. In China the plaintiff has the right to decide where the case will be tried. As a consequence, plaintiffs typically choose their own jurisdiction where they have strong personal connections to the courts. Thus libel law in China deters media from aggressively reporting the news.
All of this is a part of an enormous transition, and the changes in the media are a reflection of this process, Economy says.
"Even the Chinese leadership doesn't now how this is going to play out," she added. "So it is a constant sort of movement forward of learning and trying to understand what are the implications of allowing this or that or this to go through. And I think more often than not over the past few years they've tended to err on the side of sort of a greater clampdown rather than on opening up."
Chinese journalists, the report says, are expected to understand the CCP priorities and to avoid reporting on issues considered to be too sensitive. Financial incentives and the need to comply with the party's priorities create constant pressure for journalists to follow the party line and, thus, to keep their jobs.
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