Empty promise of press freedom

Bob Dietz
Published in the South China Morning Post
December 12, 2006

China media-watchers are accustomed to seeing moderate pendulum swings in the government’s approach to press freedom. Over the years, rules have been eased, only to be reined back when social conditions or political administrations change.

It was announced last week that some restrictions on foreign journalists conducting interviews with Chinese sources would be lifted. This may imply that the country is easing towards a more liberal media position in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The announcement that foreign correspondents would be allowed to travel around the country more freely seems to bolster that view.

But it would be a mistake to think things have actually improved for journalists in China. The new regulations will last only until October 2008, and will apply only to foreign journalists working in China – not to their local counterparts.

The new regulations say that foreign journalists will be freer to cover the Beijing Olympics and “related matters in China”. Which “related matters” is not made clear, but Liu Jianchao , the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that police could stop foreign reporters from covering emergencies and protests.

As the Games draw nearer, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalistsand other press advocacy groups have put pressure on both China and the International Olympic Committee to make sure that the media will be free and open. That was a pledge Beijing made when it was awarded the Games in 2001, says the IOC. In particular, we in the Committee to Protect Journalistsare concerned about the fate of our Chinese colleagues after the media spotlight has moved on. We continue to work to build a broad consensus that a free media in China is necessary for the success of the Games.

Beijing seems to be experimenting with different approaches, but most of them point to more media control, not less. In September, it announced that Xinhua would soon become the distributor for all news, photos and economic data flowing out of the country.

Another proposal is more troublesome. Acting as if the severe acute respiratory syndrome fiasco of 2003 never happened, Beijing has proposed clamping down on the reporting of natural and man-made environmental disasters and disease outbreaks.

If the rules are enacted, we will be back to the Orwellian situation in which there are no disasters unless the government says there is one.

These are not the policies of a government rushing towards greater media freedom. Next year’s National Party Congress will clinch President Hu Jintao’s control of the government. Beijing’s media policies under the Hu government are designed to serve two main goals. The first is to maintain the hegemony of the Communist Party. The second is to control the very real threat of widespread social unrest as the party’s liberal economic policies bring uneven development across the country, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor widens.

These polices are a growing anomaly in China’s fascinating media universe. Unlike western media markets, which are going through a period of retrenchment, in the mainland there are more newspaper, magazine and broadcast outlets than ever before. Chinese media consumers have become more sophisticated, and they have increasingly higher expectations of accuracy and reliability.

Beijing will have to do more than change a few rules if Chinese journalists are going to be allowed to meet the needs of their audiences. Opening a window for less than 24 months – for foreign journalists to do their jobs more easily – does not make China’s media more free.

In its report in April 2001, the IOC’s Evaluation Commission noted China’s promise that: “There will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.” That promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Mr. Dietz is the Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.