China’s new leadership faces censorship challenge

New York, March 11, 2013–China’s new leaders will face unprecedented challenges to controlling the media, even as journalists’ efforts to test the system continue to carry great risk, according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

CPJ’s report, “Challenged in China: The shifting dynamics of censorship and control,” finds that cracks in Beijing’s Great Firewall are countered by legal risks for journalists and Internet users. Despite prolific online criticism of the government and citizen reports that contradict official lines, China’s vague legal language means anyone may unknowingly cross a forbidden line and be vulnerable to prosecution. China is still one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, and published material has been marshaled as many as 10 years later to sentence a writer to prison. 

“China’s leadership has publicly committed to fight corruption, strengthen integrity, and expand checks on power, but such efforts will lack legitimacy without a free press,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz in Hong Kong. “It’s time for China to recognize that the Communist Party’s crisis of accountability will persist as long as Beijing keeps up its policy of censorship, propaganda, and reprisals for reporting on matters of public interest.”

China’s traditional media are controlled by the state and beset by propaganda directives, while online outlets are subject to a complex censorship system involving keyword filters, tough self-censorship requirements for operators, and surveillance pressure on users. Journalists who ask hard questions risk professional censure, jail, and extrajudicial measures. But this system of control is increasingly endangered, CPJ’s report finds.

“Today’s Chinese citizens are more informed, interconnected, and worldly than ever. They will no longer accept government propaganda as news, nor will they remain silent when faced with official lies about issues affecting their lives,” Dietz said. “It is time for the government to engage in the benefits of independent information. As a start, Beijing should release jailed journalists, halt arbitrary detentions and harassment, and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998.”

The international community must remain vigilant to media developments in China. Even as Chinese Internet users are increasingly empowered to counter propaganda, repressive regimes worldwide look to Beijing as a model for keeping free expression in check. Nations such as Pakistan and Iran have stated their wish to establish digital controls like China’s, while Beijing has led efforts at the United Nations to more tightly regulate the Internet. Chinese state media are increasing their global footprint, and the risk of China’s growing engagement is that a filtered Internet and self-censoring media spreads as a norm. Taking this into account, CPJ’s report includes recommendations to the European Union, the United States, United Nations, and Internet and technology companies.

The report includes a preface by CPJ board member David Schlesinger, a video profiling Chinese investigative journalist Liu Jianfeng, and cartoons from the Hexie Farm series by Crazy Crab. It is available to download as a PDF in English and Chinese.

Media contacts: Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, Advocacy and Communications Director, Tel. +1.212.300.9029, E-mail: [email protected]                                              

Magnus Ag, Advocacy and Communications Associate, Tel. +1.212.300.9007, E-mail: [email protected]