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China is the world’s biggest prison for journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents. Most of the around one hundred prisoners have been sentenced to long jail sentences for “subversion” or “divulging state secrets” and are held in harsh conditions, with journalists often being put to forced labour. The local authorities, fearful of bad publicity from reports on corruption and nepotism, continue to arrest journalists.
For their part, the political police concentrate their efforts on human rights activists. First dissident Hu Jia then academic Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced in December 2009 to a long prison term for online posts, were imprisoned for their involvement in the launch of Charter 08 that was signed by thousands of pro-democracy activists. More than one hundred of the signatories have been arrested, threatened or summoned by the political police from one end of the country to the other.
The communist party has marshalled massive financial and human resources to keep control over news. Most international radio news programmes in Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur are scrambled via hundreds of aerials positioned throughout the country. Thousands of websites are blocked and tens of thousands of cyber-police and cyber-censors constantly monitor the Web to purge it of “immoral and subversive” content. All this while the government bolsters its propaganda output by throwing money at a multiplicity of official media, particularly the Xinhua news agency and the broadcast group CCTV.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics were the focus of unprecedented news control. “Criminal censorship” stifled the scandal of milk contaminated with melamine during the games. The lives of children could undoubtedly been saved if the press had been given permission to warn the public about this health risk. What can one expect during the Shanghai Universal Exhibition in May 2010?
Once the games were over, the liberal press was able to resume its work of condemning some abuses by the government and companies. Beijing News for example investigated forced admissions of petitioners to psychiatric hospitals. But it is still dangerous to lay blame against the powerful, including financial players, such as the Agricultural Bank of China, which at the end of 2008 managed to get the licence suspended of the financial weekly China Business Post. All media have to obtain a licence from a state body.
Liberal weekly Nanfang Zhoumo suffered a new purge after its editor did an interview with US President Barack Obama that angered Beijing. Renowned investigative journalist, Hu Shuli, left the magazine Caijing after coming under pressure from the owner, who wanted to appease the authorities. She said at the end of the year that she would be taking on the editorship of a new title.
The entire Chinese media was forced to ignore dissident voices, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the June 1989 pro-democracy movement and the 60th anniversary in October of the founding of the People’s Republic. Several foreign correspondents were arrested or harassed. In the same way, journalists can only relay propaganda hostile to the spiritual Falungong movement, whose television station NTDTV and news websites are inaccessible in the country.
The authorities continue to bank on censorship but also invest in propaganda, combined with efforts to modernise the media but always in the interests of the communist party line. The authorities pay thousands of “little propagandists” to spot subversive content online. China also wants to compete with international television channels by creating a “Chinese-style CNN”, because, according to the director of the propaganda department, Liu Yunshan “it has become vital that China should act to ensure that its communication capacity is in step with its international prestige”. However the credibility of these media is brutally exposed when US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was censored at the point when he mentioned the question of “support for dissidents”.
A tough crackdown has been applied in Tibet and Xinjiang against anyone attempting to get out accounts, particularly footage, showing violence by security forces. Scores of Tibetans and Uyghurs have been detained, some of them given life sentences, for sending information abroad or trying to provide news differing from the party line. The local press, especially the Tibet Daily puts out virulent propaganda to the effect that China is engaged in a “life and death class struggle” against the “clique of the Dalai Lama and hostile western forces”.
Despite strict laws and the self-censorship imposed on companies in the sector, the Internet is a freer space than the press. Bloggers and Internet users in general post news that is not printed by the media and help to shape public opinion. On occasion the official media becomes the target of such derision for failing to report on major events, including the fire at the CCTV complex at the start of 2009, that they are forced to raise some sensitive issues.
The foreign press is supposed to enjoy freedom of movement and interview rights – one of the very few achievements of the Olympic period – but as soon as foreign correspondents begin to take an interest in delicate matters like Tibet, dissidents or the Aids epidemic, they find themselves obstructed and even the target of violence. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) recorded 178 cases of interference with foreign media during 2008, 63 of which were during the holding of the Olympics.
The authorities threatened several foreign correspondents with non-renewal of their press visas at the end of 2009. In tandem with this, the nationalist daily Global Times led a press campaign against foreign media, particularly German and French, accusing them of hostility towards China.
The authorities seek to limit damaging foreign press coverage by leaning on the correspondents’ Chinese assistants, forcing them to register with a semi-official body or by intimidating their sources of information. Several Chinese people have been jailed simply for replying to questions from foreign media.
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