Back and Forth

China’s hobbled moves toward greater press freedom

Linked with Sheridan Prasso – USA.

Published on Knight, by Sheridan Prasso, page 18-21/60 ff, Summer 2004.

Excerpts: … We are the mouthpiece of the party,” declared a prominent editor and writer for one of the largest newspapers in China as I dined with a group of journalists one evening in Guangzhou. His tone was one of sarcasm, but also of defeat. He and his fellow Chinese journalists find their articles censored on a continual basis, such that they begin censoring themselves or face reprobation or worse from their editors for trying to push the limits too far. In fact, the “mouthpiece” metaphor, a direct quote from former premier Zhu Rongji, was his answer to my question about why the journalists seated around me weren’t pursuing the story about which everyone in town was talking. All those present knew that the topic—al-Qaeda’s links in China—was taboo. Journalists who wrote about Muslims might face the same fate as an editor who only a short time ago placed what was deemed an unflattering picture of a Muslim on his page. He was fired …

… The most difficult challenge for Chinese journalists is their lack of clear parameters for “sensitive” issues. Political winds may dictate that a taboo topic last week is fair game this week, or that a previously untouchable official is now shark bait. Adding to the confusion, what might hold true in one city may not be so elsewhere.

As Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, puts it: “A newspaper might run an article one day in one particular province and not encounter much trouble. Three weeks later, in another province, in another newspaper, that same article might prompt local officials to close down the newspaper.” Most reporters and editors, most of the time, just try to err on the side of caution.

On one occasion, I was able to use a public forum to try to urge the authorities to use a lighter hand. A Reporters Without Borders ranking of press freedoms put China sixth on the repression scale, ahead of only North Korea, Cuba, Burma, Laos and Eritrea. At a time when China had joined the World Trade Organization and just put a man into space, joining the ranks of the world’s most powerful nations, I noted the incongruity of associating with the world’s pariah states on press freedoms. China, I argued, needed to make progress on this issue if it wanted to be among the ranks of the world’s truly most powerful nations. I was certain there was at least one member of the government’s intelligence-gathering community in the room. There always is. I hope he wrote a long report to his superiors. (full text).

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