Olympics: A 21-point plan for uniformity

Kristin Jones has been doing a great job monitoring the Chinese media and the more unofficial online world. One of the realities she has pointed out is the similarity of coverage across China‘s media when sensitive issues crop up. There is a reason for that.

An interesting piece, “Screws tighten on mainland journalists,” ran in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English-language daily. SCMP staff in Beijing spoke with some Chinese reporters recently and they told SCMP of a 21-point directive that came down last month from the Central Propaganda Department. Taboo subjects include everything from seating arrangements for dignitaries at the opening ceremonies, food safety issues, and an outright ban on using any source of information other than the official Xinhua News Agency for Games-related scandals. The standard rules for referring to Taiwan (the acceptable form is “Chinese Taipei” not the Republic of China (Taiwan) were also on the list, but no mainland Chinese reporter really needs to be reminded of that. 

The SCMP was risky–not so much for them, but for their sources. The Central Propaganda Department regularly hands down these sorts of directives to editors around the country. Chinese journalists who publicize them can face severe punishment. Shi Tao, is serving out a 10-year sentence for posting notes from a 2004 directive issued by China’s Propaganda Department that instructed the media how to cover the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Jimmy Cheng Qinghua, an editor for state-run China Radio International (CRI) in Beijing, who now lives in exile in the United States, gave CPJ the directives he saved while he worked on CRI’s desk. They covered everything from sensitive political issues to banal tabloid scandals. Having released the information, Cheng knew he wouldn’t be able to return to China without facing serious jail time.

The media story from Beijing has remained focused on how foreign journalists are being hassled in China; restricted Internet access, police abuse, surveillance of activities are all legitimate issues. But when the IOC gave the Games to Beijing in 2001–“There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games,” the Beijing Olympics organizers said in their official bid–there was no distinction made between foreign and Chinese journalists.

I’ve been urging international reporters to cover China’s media as a story on its own, and to talk with their Chinese colleagues about how they are covering their country and the Games. They should seek out their Chinese colleagues and compare notes while they are in Beijing.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)