Falling Short: Directing the News

Directing the News

The flow from censors was daily, unrelenting, and covered every conceivable topic, from the serious to the banal.

Jimmy Cheng Qinghua, an editor for state-run China Radio International (CRI) in Beijing, saw thousands of coverage directives cross his organization’s internal network. Each day, directives came down from the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council Information Office to editors and frontline reporters at CRI, aimed at controlling the information posted on the news outlet’s Chinese and foreign language Web sites. During particularly sensitive occasions—such as the anniversaries of the horrific Tangshan earthquake and the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square—dozens of instructions appeared.

At great personal risk, Cheng collected more than 100 of these orders from April 2005 to August 2006 and allowed CPJ to review them. Cheng, knowing well that reporter Shi Tao is serving a 10-year jail sentence on charges of “providing state secrets to foreigners” for e-mailing just one of these propaganda department instructions, agreed to be identified after gaining U.S. citizenship in 2008. 

The orders are quite specific, even when dealing with mundane topics. CRI’s Web sites were ordered not to repost an article on a railway police dispute that had appeared in the Beijing-based newspaper Xin Jing Bao (The Beijing News) because it was “suspected of leaking secrets.” Web sites were ordered to de-emphasize news of a fatal hospital fire in Jilin in December 2005, and to strictly monitor online forums to delete “harmful information.” Web sites were forbidden from reporting on the closing of China Youth Daily supplement Freezing Point, and were instructed to delete all existing postings.

The flow from censors was daily, unrelenting, and covered every conceivable topic, from the serious to the banal. Here are a few:

• “All press inquiries and correspondence regarding the Shanwei City Honghaiwang 12/6 incident [in which police killed several protesters]. … On December 18, major media in Guangdong province will publish the Shanwei news office representative’s response to press inquiries regarding the Honghaiwang 12/6 incident. All reporting on news Web sites in Guangdong on this subject will be arranged by the Guangdong government news office. All other Web sites without exception are prohibited from posting information in connection with the matter. Internet Office, December 18, 2005”

• “To all local and foreign propaganda offices and news Web sites: Please do not report on the suspension from teaching of Jilin Art Institute Teaching and Research Section professor Lu Xuesong. Anything found on Internet forums related to the incident must be removed. Central External Propaganda Department Internet Office, August 8, 2005”

• “Regarding information on the article headlined, “Surgeon spoke on the phone during surgery and paralyzed a patient’s face, 180,000 RMB damages sought from military general hospital” [Beijing Evening News, November 30, 2005]. All Web sites must cease reporting on this incident. Do not inflame this situation, disable all related news threads, and swiftly tone it down. Internet Office, December 1, 2005”

• “Regarding the Tangshan coal mining accident news, each site should only use Xinhua News Agency dispatches. It is forbidden to use any other reports. Do not post news threads, do not post headlines, discussion forums are also out of the question. Each Web site should strictly monitor content, using only Xinhua dispatches for related breaking news and removing harmful information. Internet Office, December 7, 2005”

» return to Chapter 5:
Censorship at Work: The Newsroom in China