Accessibility links

Breaking News

Media Matters: October 3, 2005

3 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 17
By Patrick Moore

China seems to be the most successful pioneer in controlling its citizens' access to the Internet. A recent case shows that it has the help of some Western companies in doing so.

According to one recent estimate, China has more than 87 million Internet users, or the second-largest online population on the planet. It is also a one-party dictatorship with a well-established reputation for regulating its citizens' access to information.

Given this combination of factors, it is not surprising that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control bodies have singled out the Internet for particular attention. London's "The Times" wrote on 30 August that "China's police have developed what are probably the most sophisticated Internet filtering methods in the world. They had the advantage of starting early and knew exactly what they did not want: political dissent and porn."

All major commercial websites must register with the authorities and be accountable for content. Furthermore, as Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service reported on 17 August, in at least the Shenzhen area near Hong Kong, those wanting to use instant messaging software to take part in group discussions must register their real identities, which are then verified by a government-approved company. The apparent aim is to intimidate people into self-censorship.

On 16 June, state media reported that the Beijing Security Service Corporation -- which is run by the police -- is setting up a new Beijing Internet Security Service and is looking for 4,000 recruits to staff it. About 800 of them will go to Internet cafes throughout the city and most of the rest to various other Internet-related businesses. Among their duties will be to "delete all kinds of harmful information" as part of a drive that is reportedly being extended to other cities as well.

But even the CCP and the security forces are not able to do everything by themselves. According to "The Times": "search providers, such as Microsoft, set up their own filters as required by the authorities to block the use of certain keywords, such as 'democracy,' human rights,' and 'Tibet independence.' Most sensitive of all is 'Falungong'.... An attempt to search for that sect via Google results in the entire search engine shutting down for 20 minutes. Other sites that are inaccessible by normal means include Amnesty International." RFA noted on 15 September that Cisco's routers designed to block viruses can "be re-tuned to exclude content that Beijing doesn't want its citizens to see" (

Sometimes foreign businesses cooperate with the authorities in other ways. RFA noted that dissident journalist Shi Tao was sentenced earlier this year to 10 years in prison for "illegally providing state secrets abroad" in an e-mail to an overseas human rights group. In his message, he detailed the work of the CCP's Central Propaganda Department, which oversees the media. The broadcast reported that Chinese government investigators were able to prove that Shi "sent the e-mail thanks to private information supplied by internet giant Yahoo!'s Hong Kong subsidiary."

A open letter circulated by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC) argued that "Yahoo! provided evidence that contributed to Shi's arrest and conviction for activities that did not threaten China's national security, but merely represented the exercise of his right to free expression and to criticize the government, as protected by China's own constitution." RSF also stated that "we already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well."

A spokeswoman for Yahoo! in Hong Kong told Reuters on 8 September, however, that "just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations, and customs of the country in which they are based."

Li Hongkuan, who is editor of the U.S.-based Chinese-language online publication "Da Cankao," told RFA that "anyone who wants to make money in China has to surrender to the political power of the [CCP]. Under such circumstances, the fate of a single individual like Shi Tao would simply not figure into their calculations." Li stressed that "China has no protection for human rights. This is a basic moral choice that anyone wanting to do business there must face. There is always a tension between the need to maximize profit and the rights of the individual."

By Patrick Moore

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken new measures aimed at controlling citizens' access to information through the Internet by slapping controls on bloggers. The question remains: can the authorities maintain a one-party dictatorship and at the same time give proper attention to the information needs of a vibrant economy?

China bears the distinction of having the world's second-largest population of Internet users -- about 100 million -- and the planet's most sophisticated system of Internet controls, which has been dubbed "The Great Firewall."

The Ministry of Information announced on 25 September a package of measures designed to control bloggers, informal organizations, and Internet-only news sites, which comes on the heels of recent measures aimed at setting up Internet police and otherwise intimidating people into self-censorship -- sometimes with the help of foreign tech companies.

Registered media outlets are already covered by existing regulations. The new measures center on on-line journalists who are not part of a previously licensed organization but must now register. These include not only individual bloggers, journalists, or others distributing news by e-mail, but also unofficial labor, social, and environmental groups, which have been instrumental in publicizing mining accidents, land seizures, riots, and other topics considered too delicate for the official media.

The new rules aim to promote the dissemination of "healthy and civilized news." They state that "online news service units should...serve the people, uphold the correct leadership of public opinion, and protect the interests of the nation and public." According to the official Xinhua news agency, one may post only information "that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to its economic development, and conducive to social progress."

Websites and portals must now "give priority" to news and opinion material that have already appeared in the state-run print media. This seemingly puts a stop not only to free-wheeling, opinion-driven blogging but also to the use of the Internet to break and develop news stories that the official media have not reported. The "Los Angeles Times" observed on 27 September that the new rules could be interpreted broadly enough to enable the authorities to punish anyone who sends friends an e-mail describing a local riot.

As with previous regulations aimed at licensed journalistic organizations, the new measures also prohibit things like pornography, on-line gambling, and disseminating news of illegal gatherings, riots, or unofficial groups like Falungong, which are determined to "disturb the public order." Those found guilty of violating the regulations can be fined up to $3,700 and face a shutdown of their operation.

Had the new regulations come into force one year ago, it would have been difficult to organize the anti-Japanese demonstrations that took place in several cities this past spring. The new rules might also have prevented the rapid spread of news of mining disasters or discouraged the networking going on involving peasants, NGOs, journalists, and lawyers who are opposed to land seizures.

Some U.S. and British media have reported that the new measures are part of a campaign dubbed the "smokeless war" against "liberal elements" that CCP Chairman Hu Jintao announced at a secret party meeting in May. If the moves to control the Internet, including the bloggers, do indeed reflect the policies of the top leadership, then they are unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

The question arises as to how the CCP can maintain such control in the midst of a booming economy that requires a free flow of information. Will it be possible for China to effectively utilize the Internet while the authorities restrict its use and try to thwart the networking that is a basic part of its capability?

By Donald F. Reindl

Slovenia held its most tightly contested referendum ever on 25 September, when the public passed judgment on a new state broadcasting law that the parliament adopted in July. The referendum passed by only 50.23 percent with a turnout of just under 31 percent. At stake was the management structure of Slovenia's state television and radio company (RTV), with opponents warning that the new law would politicize programming.

Television broadcasting began in Slovenia in 1957, but RTV traces its history back to 1928, when Radio Ljubljana first went on the air. In addition to Slovenian-language programming, RTV also offers regional broadcasts for Slovenia's officially recognized (albeit relatively small) Italian and Hungarian minorities. Like other media, RTV has also entered the electronic age with its own news website at

RTV is managed by a council and supervisory board responsible for the usual administrative tasks of staffing and budgets. They also determine fees and programming content, which was the main issue in the public discussions before the referendum. The new law expands and modifies the compositions of both governing bodies.

Under the previous law dating from 1994, five council members were appointed directly by parliament, reflecting the makeup of the governing coalition. Various ethnic and cultural groups, as well as RTV employees themselves, appointed an additional 20 council members. The new law expands the council to a 29-member programming board by increasing the appointments by religious communities from one to two, adding an additional two appointments from other civil society organizations, and adding one appointment from the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts. The radio and TV director and various editors will now report to the general director instead of the council.

The supervisory board has been expanded from seven (five government appointees plus two employee appointees) to 11 members by reducing the number of government appointees to four, but adding five appointees from all political parties. The introduction of a parliamentary channel is also envisaged, and the changes are expected to take effect in November.

Like other state or "public" media throughout Europe, RTV is partially funded through an obligatory "licensing fee" -- about 2,600 tolars ($14) per month -- paid by everyone who owns a television or radio. Appealing to voters' pocketbooks, opponents of the law claimed that the changes would result in increased monthly fees, but this was denied by the law's proponents.

In many ways, the referendum had little to do with RTV, but represented a broader debate on reform and transition in Slovenia. A conservative government headed by Janez Jansa of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) was installed in December 2004. With this came pledges to implement social and legislative reform after more than a decade of rule by various left-oriented coalitions, most recently dominated by the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party and its ally the United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD) -- the successor to the former Communist Party and recently renamed the Social Democrats.

The pace of this reform has been excruciatingly slow. With no time to draft a new law, a tax code of Byzantine complexity sponsored by the previous government came into effect in January 2005 despite unanimous objections from accountants and the self-employed. Promises to reduce Slovenia's bloated civil service have largely come to naught because of socialist-era protections built into labor laws. When efforts to promote free trade, economic liberalization, privatization, and decentralization stalled in the face of institutional obstacles, economic guru Mico Mrkaic resigned in July from the Strategic Council for Economic Development that Jansa had established. As a member of the SDS privately conceded, the coalition has the will to implement reforms, but is unable to push them through institutions that remain staffed by LDS-era appointees. Promises to reduce Slovenia's bloated civil service have largely come to naught because of socialist-era protections built into labor laws.

Pre-referendum debate on both sides of the issue was exaggerated. Parliamentarian Branko Grims (SDS) urged Slovenes to "vote yes, so that our children will grow up in a democratic world." The head of the conservative New Slovenia (NSi) women's union, Lidija Drobnic, charged that only former communists were given air time on the issue. However, the charges are not without basis -- in 2004, RTV abruptly cancelled the airing of a documentary on the post-World War II killings orchestrated by the communists.

A week before the vote, the cover of the leftist magazine "Mladina" featured a crucified caricature of RTV's icon, a boy playing a flute. Post-referendum commentary in "Mladina" claimed that the culturally ignorant rural population had won over the objections of the more sophisticated urban population and declared that the government was trying to lead a revolution -- ignoring the fact that the voters confirmed a decision made by their elected representatives.

Inasmuch as referendums also represent a survey of public confidence, Slovenia's government will not cheer the outcome of this vote, but will certainly greet it with a sigh of relief. [Donald F. Reindl is a freelance writer and Indiana University doctoral candidate based in Ljubljana (]

By Paul Goble

The International Muslim Film Festival held in the first week of September in Kazan represents the most ambitious and -- if one judges by Moscow commentaries -- most successful effort yet by the Muslim community of the Russian Federation to break into that country's broader media scene.

Until now, Russia's Muslims have generally been at the margins of the media scene there, either speaking to one another via websites and in publications with tiny print runs or appearing in media outlets with larger, non-Muslim audiences only on the invitation of others who want them to explain or defend something a Muslim has done.

But now, with the film festival in Kazan, the Muslim community itself is taking the initiative and seeking, its organizers said and Russian commentators concur, to present via one of the most powerful public mediums available the most attractive public face of Islam as Muslims understand it to a Russian and even international audience.

Organized by the Council of Muftis of Russia, Tatarstan's Ministry of Culture, and the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, the weeklong meeting attracted more than 154 films from more than 20 countries, of which several dozen were shown and given prizes, Tatar and Russian news agencies and periodicals have reported.

The Council of Muftis of Russia head Ravil Gainutdin enthused that the gathering had shown the "good face of Islam" to the world. The festival's judges said that it demonstrated that Islam stands against international terrorism. And one Moscow paper -- "Novye izvestiya" on 8 September -- called it "the Kazan Cannes," a reference to the most famous film festival of all.

That did not mean that the meeting went off without criticism. Vladimir Khotinenko, whose decade-old film "The Muslim Woman" won a special prize, told the media that "there is no such thing as Islamic cinematography just as there is no just thing as Islamic football," Moscow's "Gazeta" reported on 13 September.

And some participants were clearly uncomfortable with what they saw as an excessive effort by the organizers to be politically correct, to hand out prizes not on the basis of artistic excellence alone but rather on the basis of what might be politically acceptable to a non-Muslim audience.

But despite that, the organizers said the meeting had been a success and announced that they had reached agreement with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov to stage the second such festival in the Russian capital as part of the city's "Multinational Moscow, Multiconfessional Moscow" program, Interfax and reported on 13 September.

This year's festival is now history, and the winners of the Golden Mundir awards have gone home, but even as they have done so, ever more Muslims are likely to be assuming a higher profile in the national media of the Russian Federation, speaking out on behalf of their community and challenging the assumptions of others about Islam.

One of the clearest indications of this process was the appearance earlier this week in Moscow's "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of an interview with Dinara Sadretdinova, who hosts a program on the "Rossiya" television channel. She told the paper about her life as a Muslim in Moscow and the role that she and other Muslims are now playing in the Russian media.

Sadretdinova, who invariably wears a hijab to stress her obedience to Islam, said that she often encounters negative reactions to that despite the fact that she, a Tatar, is a third-generation Muscovite. "It is very bitter to see what classes take place between people of different faiths" there, she said. "We do not choose where we are born."

Married to an Algerian, the Russian television personality is in her own life a bridge among cultures, Tatar, Algerian, and Russian, and that allows her to speak out on the benefits of a multicultural milieu and on the need to promote tolerance among people of all faiths in the Russian Federation.

"In Islam, there are no divisions on a nationality basis," Sadretdinova said. "Before the Most High, all people are equal." And that in turn means that various cultures when they coexist with one another in the same place only "add to and enrich people, and help them to stand on a higher cultural, spiritual and intellectual level."

That makes the promotion of tolerance critically important, she said, but added that such attitudes must be cultivated from earliest childhood. Television and other media can help, but "only a father and a mother can explain and teach a child to respect and value other people."

Some Muslim radicals are likely to view such politesse as their own variant of Uncle Tomism, but most Muslim leaders are certain to see the expression of such views as the very best way of bringing their message to a broader audience via media that until very recently have been dominated either by secularism or on occasion by Orthodox Christianity.

By Robert Parsons

Russia has begun test broadcasts of a new 24-hour English-language satellite TV news channel, aimed at presenting a more positive image of Russia throughout the world. The channel, which is called Russia Today, is to broadcast to North America, Europe, and Asia. It has a staff of over 300, a budget of $30 million, and broadcasts with a distinctly British accent.

A little bit of history in the making. Russia Today is gearing up to become Moscow's first-ever international television broadcaster -- in English and with a British anchor.

The diet of news in this test run of the new channel is almost entirely foreign -- the United Nations summit in New York, bombings in Baghdad, and the election campaign in Afghanistan. The announcement by former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov that he intended to run in the next presidential elections was given far less attention.

But, as 25-year-old news director Margarita Simonyan told RFE/RL, that's because the main purpose of the channel is to be a foreign news broadcaster -- albeit with a Russian slant.

"We're going to do international news and are trying to do a Russian angle on them, trying to show what impact international affairs have on Russia and we will also try to show interesting things about Russia, what is happening here, documentaries, interesting people and places, something that might be new to our audience," Simonyan said.

She portrays Russia Today as a sort of Russian BBC, complete with its own board of governors and independent broadcasting standards. Doubters suspect that it's more likely to become just another mouthpiece of the state -- slicker certainly than the ponderous, heavily accented Radio Moscow of Soviet times -- but propaganda nevertheless.

Since Vladimir Putin became president of the Russian Federation in 2000, the burgeoning independence of commercial television has been nipped in the bud. State-run television rarely carries reports that are even remotely critical of the government.

Russia Today is the brainchild of former Information Minister Mikhail Lesin and Putin's press spokesman, Aleksei Gromov. They say they've grown tired of watching foreign journalists present a distorted and biased portrayal of Russia to the outside world. Russia Today will attempt to set the record straight. Lesin has said Russia needs to start polishing its image. Otherwise, he said, "we'll always look like bears."

The channel belongs to the state news agency, RIA-Novosti, but it has raised its start-up capital of $30 million from loans secured from commercial banks. It claims also to have employed 72 foreign journalists, many of them with experience in major networks like the BBC, CNN, and ABC. Among them, British-born Mike Alexander, who has worked in television in the United States and Britain for over 20 years. Now news editor of the new channel, he says he is under no pressure to censor the output.

"I have seen absolutely nothing so far that does not allow me to operate as a normal journalist," he told RFE/RL.

Truth be told, though, the staff at Russia Today should have been celebrating rather more than a 24-hour technical rehearsal. It had been planned that the channel would begin broadcasting this month -- perhaps even in time for President Putin's address to the UN summit -- but an accumulation of glitches has set back the starting date. Simonyan said the launch is now scheduled for the end of the year.