Wed, Dec 25, 2013 - Page 9 News List

China dare not tolerate freedom of the press

Even as China’s leaders promise a more liberal future for the country, they are suppressing those who would tell the truth

By Will Hutton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

The year began with journalists from China’s Southern Weekly striking because their paper had spiked a leader calling for constitutional protections for individual liberty at the behest of the local propaganda chief — and replaced it with an article praising the Chinese Communist Party. It ends with the New York Times and Bloomberg, having dared to publish details of the stunning family wealth of the country’s outgoing prime minister and incoming president, fearing that the one-year ban on new journalist visas to both organizations may be continued.

This is life in a one-party state, a running battle between a party apparatus fearful for its legitimacy and journalists whose craft necessarily involves disclosing information that the party would rather nobody knew. The practice of journalism in China, a country where 30 practitioners are in prison, has never been easy. This year, it has become a great deal harder.

A new anti-rumor law makes spreading “defamatory” information on the Internet that “harms the national interest” punishable with three years’ imprisonment if there are more than 500 reposts or 5,000 Internet viewers. State Internet Information Office Vice Minister Ren Xianliang (任賢良), declares that the control of “rumors” has been “quite effective,” “slander” is in decline and the flow of information is more “orderly.” He is creating “cyberspace with Chinese characteristics,” he helpfully explains.

Every journalist in China knows what that means. Overstep the mark and you can, like Reuters’ Paul Mooney, simply have a request to have your visa renewed turned down. Mooney had dared to be too critical. For Chinese journalists, the penalties are more dramatic. You can lose your job, or you can be arrested and only released once you have made a confession of your wrongs.

Thus Chen Yongzhou (陳永洲), a distinguished reporter on Guangdong’s New Express, found himself arrested in October after he had exposed alleged corruption at a local state-owned construction equipment company — Zoomlion. The police who arrested him arrived in a car owned by the company. The paper called for his release, saying that it had checked all 15 reports and could only find one trivial error. However, Chen then “confessed,” on TV that he had accepted bribes from Zoomlion’s competitors to write the pieces.

He may have done — bribery is endemic in China and journalists do accept bribes to write stories that help their bribers’ interests. On the other hand, arrest in China is terrifying; Chen warned after three days of custody that he could only “hold out” for another 30. The “confession” was delivered before any trial and the source of the bribe has never been identified. Everyone knows that the false accounting and excessive charging for which Zoomlion was criticized is common practice in state-owned enterprises, but you also have to be careful who in power you criticize. The New Express climbed down fast.

According to Wang Qinlei (王青雷), a former producer of China Central TV’s top political programs, who was fired a few weeks ago for publicly criticizing its coverage of the concocted attacks on a famous social blogger, political influence is everywhere. His blog was deleted almost instantly.

“In the space of a year, we get upwards of a thousand propaganda orders,” he wrote. “How many of these orders were issued in the national interest and how many were issued to serve the political and economic interests of some individual, group or leader? And how often did we castrate ourselves as a result of trying to fathom the attitudes of high officials? Our leaders should understand that if the amount of news you can’t report climbs too high, people won’t believe the news you can report — because it’s propaganda chosen with a purpose.”

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