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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists
China jails journalists, imposes vast censorship, and allows harassment, attacks, and threats to occur with impunity. It needs to do much more to meet its promises to the world.
Domestic censorship remains in force across all regions and types of media. All news outlets are subject to orders from the Central Propaganda Department. Provincial officials cooperate with their counterparts in other regions to shut down coverage of sensitive local issues.
Coverage directives are issued regularly on issues large and small. Authorities close publications and reassign personnel as penalties for violating censorship orders.
By law, all news outlets must be overseen by some state body, which in turn is responsible for ensuring that party propaganda orders are followed. At the national level, the Xinhua News Agency, China Radio International,
China Central Television, the Guangming Daily, and the People’s Daily are under the control of central government and party leadership. Provincial and municipal authorities oversee regional and local newspapers and television stations.
Starting in 1979, the Chinese media enjoyed a general revitalization, with serious efforts made to safeguard press freedom and to protect journalists. That trend was abruptly reversed when the government cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The salary system for journalists is a principal means of regulating content. Reporters are paid a low base salary, supplemented by bonuses when articles are published. Reporters typically pursue stories sure to make it into print or broadcast, reporting them in a way that will satisfy the censors. In awarding pay, many news outlets also apply a ratings system that judges the political merits of a reporter’s coverage.
Journalists say these controls are generally effective at quashing investigative reporting. Economic and government controls have also led to breaches of journalistic ethics, including extortion, bribery, and the manufacturing of news stories.
Despite the restrictive climate, many Chinese reporters pursue difficult stories and post their work on blogs or online message boards.
At least 29 journalists are in Chinese prisons as a direct result of their work, 24 of them on vague “antistate” charges. These cases typically involve reporting and commentary that promote democracy or embarrass party leaders. China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, a notorious distinction it has held for eight consecutive years.
Violent attacks on the press, though uncommon in Beijing, occur with frequency in the rest of the country. Local officials and businesspeople suppress coverage by using brute force, hiring thugs to threaten or attack journalists. These local figures also use civil defamation lawsuits to silence critical coverage. Since the local courts do the bidding of local party bosses, such cases are usually decided against journalists. Truth is not a defense.
Chinese journalists do not have the right to organize to protect their interests. The officially sanctioned All-China Journalists Association has failed to address their needs, and Chinese journalists lack an official venue for making specific recommendations for reform.
China’s efforts to control the Internet have met with success, but its many thousands of censors are struggling to stay ahead of its Web-using citizens. An estimated 137 million people are online in China, about 10 percent of the mainland population. Subscription rates are accelerating.
Internet censorship is both technological and regulatory. The government demands that individual service providers monitor content. These providers filter searches, block Web sites, delete content, and monitor e-mail traffic. A 2005 study of China’s e-mail filtering system conducted by the Internet censorship research organization OpenNet Initiative found that messages with politically offensive subject lines or text had been blocked.
International service providers have proved susceptible to Chinese government pressure. Yahoo turned over e-mail account information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of a journalist and several other dissidents. Microsoft came under fire for deleting a well-regarded reporter’s blog. And Google launched a self-censoring Chinese search engine.
As of January 1, 2007, foreign correspondents have been allowed to travel more freely and conduct interviews more easily. The relaxed rules, however, expire in October 2008. Foreign journalists report less harassment under the new regulations, although most still operate under the assumption that their phones are tapped and their e-mail is monitored.
Foreign news organizations are instructed to hire local assistants through authorized service organizations only. The rules do not allow Chinese assistants to work as reporters for foreign media. Sources and assistants remain vulnerable to government pressure. Chinese citizens who speak to the media about sensitive issues or help reporters cover such matters can be subject to reprisal.