Attacks on the Press in 2008: China

In the year of the “One World, One Dream” Olympics, China’s punitive and highly restrictive press policies became a global issue. International reporters who arrived early to prepare for the Games flocked to cover antigovernment riots in Tibet and western provinces in March and the Sichuan earthquake in May. They encountered the sweeping official interference that resident journalists have long faced every day. Domestic news media, which by law must be sponsored by official government bodies, generally followed the government line on Tibetan and Olympic issues, although some newspapers and magazines distinguished themselves with breaking coverage of the earthquake and investigative reporting on local government corruption. Online writers who published more outspoken pieces were jailed on antistate charges.

Though journalists challenged the propaganda apparatus on many issues, they could not dent official obstruction of a major consumer health problem that could have dampened the Olympic festivities. Traces of the toxic chemical melamine were found in a wide range of food products, with complaints being made as early as June, according to subsequent news reports. But the story did not break until September as government censors banned coverage of food safety issues in the period around the Olympics. According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, a 21-point coverage directive issued by the Central Propaganda Department in August included this edict to domestic media: “All food safety issues [are] off-limits.”

By fall, the industrial chemical—fraudulently added by dairy producers to boost protein readings—had sickened tens of thousands of Chinese children and was found in products on supermarket shelves worldwide. The story’s trajectory was reminiscent of the SARS outbreak in late 2002 and early 2003, when the government tried to cover up a story with global implications.

When violence erupted in Lhasa during March demonstrations against Chinese rule of Tibet, foreign reporters were expelled from the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of western provinces. The reaction was out of line with Beijing’s 2001 promise, made as part of its competitive bid to host the Games, to allow reporters “complete freedom” in China. It also highlighted the authorities’ disregard, on both the local and the national level, for 2007 regulations introduced to ease restrictions on the overseas press corps during the Olympic period. By April, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) had logged more than 50 incidents of police harassing reporters in Tibetan areas. Deprived of access, many foreign news outlets relied on tourists and exiled pro-Tibet activists to supply reporting on Tibetans brutally suppressed by Chinese security forces, while overlooking signs that many rioters had targeted ethnic Han Chinese civilians.

The reports galvanized the many domestic supporters of the government’s position on Tibet, who charged that the Western media were biased and out to harm China. Web sites such as anti-CNN assailed foreign media outlets, and at least 10 Beijing-based foreign reporters received anonymous death threats, according to the FCCC. Foreign news sources, including CNN, are subject to many forms of censorship in China, from the sophisticated, government-run computer monitoring information system known as the Golden Shield Project to the interruption of TV news broadcasts in midstream. But the nationalistic outcry revealed a new generation of Chinese Internet users engaging with international news via proxy servers—and taking umbrage at foreign censure, not domestic censors.

Their outrage was not limited to international journalists. Hackers disrupted the Web site of Beijing-based Tibetan commentator Woeser in May. Zhang Ping, deputy editor of Guangzhou-based Nanfang Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly), faced an online backlash after calling for critics of the international press to direct their criticism instead to “the Chinese government’s controls over both the sources of information and its dissemination in the local media” in an April 3 editorial on the Chinese Web site of London’s Financial Times. Other domestic voices seeking to moderate Chinese attitudes toward Tibet were officially stifled. Sichuan police arrested activist and writer Chen Daojun in May in connection with three political commentaries, including an opinion piece that was perceived as casting the Tibetan unrest in a positive light. He was later sentenced to three years in prison.

A parallel crackdown on ethnic voices was under way in the western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where concentrations of the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority chafed under Chinese rule. A fully licensed minority-run Web site, Uighur Online, was shut down May 15. When unidentified groups attacked police in two separate clashes in August as the Olympic Games got under way, the authorities—perhaps learning from the Tibetan experience—were quick to spin the story for overseas reporters. State news played down one bomb attack as “criminal” in Chinese reports, while trumpeting “terrorism” in English-language versions to justify the security lockdown that followed. Though foreign reporters were allowed access, local officials were often uncooperative or hostile. Two Japanese reporters—Masami Kawakita, a photographer for Chunichi Shimbun, and Shinji Katsuta, a reporter for Nippon Television Network—were beaten in the remote city of Kashgar on August 5.

At least two of the 28 journalists in detention at the time of CPJ’s annual census on December 1 were ethnic Tibetan. Police in Qinghai’s provincial capital, Xining, arrested independent filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen and his assistant shortly before the March unrest for interviewing Tibetans about their lives under Chinese rule; Wangchen’s assistant, Jigme Gyatso, was released in October. After the riots, Jamyang Kyi, veteran producer for state-run Qinghai TV, spent the month of April in detention before being released on bail, according to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia. Washu Rangjung, a Seda TV news presenter in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, remained in detention since September 11. No charges were reported in the cases.

As the year began, press advocates hoped the approaching Olympics might prompt authorities to free some imprisoned journalists. Instead, China continued to operate a revolving prison door. On February 5, Ching Cheong, a reporter for Hong Kong’s Straits Times, was freed on early parole three years into a five-year jail term on espionage charges. The same day, a court in southwestern Hangzhou City sentenced freelance journalist Lü Gengsong to four years for inciting subversion in online articles. The trend continued throughout the year. While print journalists Li Changqing and Yu Huafeng completed jail terms in 2008, online writers such as Qi Chonghuai, Hu Jia, and Sun Lin were given sentences of three to four years each for crimes linked to their work. When CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the 10th consecutive year.

At least two people were jailed in 2008 for reporting on the state’s response to the devastating earthquake that hit the western province of Sichuan in May, killing nearly 70,000 people. Police in the provincial capital, Chengdu, detained retired professor Zeng Hongling on June 9 for posting articles criticizing local officials’ handling of the disaster on overseas Web sites. The day after the 6-4tianwang Web site reported her arrest, its founder Huang Qi was detained; the veteran human rights worker had also written about disaster-relief efforts and shoddy construction. No formal charges had been disclosed by late year. Huang had spent five years in prison earlier in the decade on subversion allegations. (His 2001 trial was delayed without official explanation when the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, was touring the country to assess Beijing’s bid to host the Games.)

The Sichuan earthquake ushered in a moment of heightened activity for China’s news media. Reporting on the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake had been officially quashed; by contrast, Chinese journalists sweeping into Sichuan in May ignored propaganda regulations and helped drive a national outpouring of grief and philanthropy. The country’s commercially oriented news outlets led the way, buoyed by eyewitness accounts that outpaced the censors at the Central Propaganda Department. Their coverage was so compelling that even media under direct control of the central government followed their lead: CCTV broadcast live from the quake zone, and China Daily published a rare “exclusive” from the northwestern city of Mianyang. The media’s energy was matched, for the most part, by professionalism. Newspapers and Web sites scaled down entertainment news ahead of an official three-day mourning period marked with striking black-and-white front pages.

The deployment of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to the disaster zone helped the propaganda department recapture the narrative. At the same time, authorities began applying the heavy-handed tactics often used to control sensitive national stories. When Sichuan parents of children killed in the collapse of flimsy school buildings began to call for accountability, Sichuan bylines disappeared from print and police manhandled both local and foreign reporters covering protest vigils by grieving parents.

This was the media landscape for the 20,000-plus foreign journalists covering the August Games. Dynamic, evolving, but still heavily controlled, it was not the “complete freedom” that had been promised. The Games’ organizers limited media access to Tiananmen Square, barring live broadcasts in European prime-time hours; delayed or refused journalists’ visas; and obstructed the deployment of media equipment and vehicles. While Olympic venues had been ready far ahead of schedule, media groups were still negotiating compromises to broadcast and coverage restrictions only days before the opening ceremony. Some were thwarted: Radio Free Asia reporter Dhondup Gonsar, an ethnic Tibetan and U.S. citizen whose application to cover the Games had been approved, spent the duration in Hong Kong awaiting a visa. Police broke up a live German broadcast from the Great Wall that had been government approved. Foreign journalists photographing protests by pro-Tibetan groups were detained for periods ranging from 20 minutes to six days, and sometimes deported.

The inconvenience for foreign reporters kept a spotlight on press freedom, but their local counterparts were at far greater risk. Less than three weeks before the Olympics, online writer Du Daobin was ordered to serve a three-year prison sentence that had been suspended when first imposed. He was 12 days shy of completing his probationary term; authorities issued vague explanations for revoking his probation.

The IOC’s influence on Beijing was very limited as the Games drew closer. IOC President Jacques Rogge said in April that China should respect its “moral engagement” to improve press freedom and human rights, as promised in its Olympic bid. A CPJ delegation met with Rogge at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on July 15 to detail China’s continuing failure to meet press freedom assurances. The delegation asked the IOC to speak out publicly about press freedom violations during the Games and informed Rogge and his staff that CPJ would launch a 24-hour hotline to field calls from journalists covering the Olympics. CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz, who was denied a visa to work in Beijing during the Games, fielded telephone complaints and blogged from Hong Kong.

By the time the Games arrived, Chinese authorities were so unconcerned about press freedom that they were blocking at least 50 news, human rights, and pro-Tibet Web sites across the country, according to OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship issues. CPJ’s Web site was among those censored. And by August 4, Rogge was brushing off IOC responsibility. “We are not running the Internet in China,” he told reporters at a Beijing press conference.

China’s Internet monitoring remained a major concern throughout the year. The Beijing government, for example, implemented regulations requiring the city’s Internet cafés to obtain identification from first-time visitors.

In October, CPJ joined with Internet companies, human rights groups, academics, and investors in creating the Global Network Initiative, which for the first time sets guidelines for Internet and telecommunications companies to protect privacy and free expression. Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft joined the initiative and agreed to follow its guidelines when restrictive governments seek to enlist them in acts of censorship or surveillance that violate international human rights standards. (Journalist Shi Tao continued to serve a 10-year prison term for e-mailing details of a propaganda department directive to an overseas Web site. He was arrested in 2004 after Yahoo supplied his account information to the government.)

The Foreign Ministry indefinitely extended regulations adopted for the Olympics that eased travel and reporting restrictions for international journalists. The relaxed rules, adopted in January 2007, had been due to expire October 17. In effect, the liberalized rules said foreign reporters could travel without government permission and could interview anyone who would speak with them.

Foreign journalists said the relaxed regulations represented only a small step forward. During major events such as the Tibetan unrest, police ignored the supposedly liberalized rules and barred access to areas of unrest. The FCCC logged more than 330 violations between January 2007 and November 2008. Also significant, the rules appeared to shift the onus for critical comments onto interviewees, who risked official retribution for comments made to journalists. Among the crimes cited in Hu Jia’s court documents was that of speaking to foreign media outlets. Sources could be the new focus of punitive measures as the world withdraws its gaze from post-Olympics China.

ASIA: Regional Analysis
Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

ASIA: Country Summaries

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