Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Peoples' Watchdog

I'm reposting the majority of a post from the Peking Duck today because I think it merits as wide a distribution as possible.
This is from yesterday's unlinkable South China Morning Post, and if you don't mind I'm pasting the entire article. It's that important. Mainland authorities are tightening control of the media to close loopholes that until now have allowed some fresh air into the stifling official propaganda.
In recent months, the Publicity Department of the Communist Party has issued a series of directives to re-emphasise that trade publications and metropolitan newspapers must keep their news coverage to their
mandated area.

The ban on "extra-territorial" reporting deals a serious blow to investigative reporting and weakens the so-called "oversight by media", editors and media analysts said.

Until recently, some of the high-profile exposés that shocked the nation or brought changes in government policies were made by reporters from outside the area in question, to circumvent local censorship.

For example, the Nanfang Weekly - which is published by the Southern Newspaper Group in Guangzhou - made a name for itself exposing official corruption in other provinces.

Another paper in the group, Southern Metropolis News, has often run into trouble with local authorities in areas outside Guangzhou city.

The Beijing Youth Daily also made frequent forays to expose corruptions in other cities.

The government has promoted "oversight by media" - subjecting the performance of local officials to scrutiny by the public through the media - as a way of checking rampant corruption.

If reporters were barred from undertaking investigations outside their local areas, the exercise would lose much of its edge, a media-studies professor said.

"This [non-local] reporting has been the best hope for liberalising the news media." said the professor.

National media, such as the China Youth Daily and CCTV, have often asserted their independence. But under the new rules, national press must "communicate" with officials in the area being investigated and inform them of the content of the critical reporting before ublishing the article or airing the programme.

Television news programme producers were also instructed to highlight the positive. Even in exposés on corruption, they must emphasise that the sleaze was an exception while the overwhelming majority of
officials had high moral standards.

"Our work is getting more difficult," said a producer with a newsmagazine programme in Beijing. "We can only sing praises."

The news media had been subjected to increasingly tighter controls since the summer of 2003, to rein in the open expression of opinion that spread during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic.

Under Li Changchun , a member of the Politburo Standing Committee with the portfolio of ideological matters, the media has taken a turn to the ideological left, and the squeeze on news outlets has been

The use of intimidation and detention is still very much in evidence. Most recently, Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter working for Singapore's The Straits Times, was detained on espionage charges.
I've had several very knowledgable commenters note that it is still too early to judge what Hu Jintao's real intentions are in terms of reforming the government, that any hardline rhetoric coming out of his mouth must be taken with a huge grain of salt, until he's had a real opportunity to consolidate his position and remove the remnants of Jiang Zemin's "Shanghai Gang" from power. As one commenter pointed out, the last thing any current leader in China wants to be known as is "China's Gorbachev," which is to say, any kind of serious reformer. Reformers have not exactly flourished in recent CCP history (or, well, in CCP history, period). The crackdown on press freedom and public discourse may be the result of backstage maneuvering and jockeying for power, and not of a consensus amongst all factions of the leadership. A temporary trade-off, perhaps.

And yet this is still deeply worrying news. Both for the individuals whose lives and livelihood these regulations threaten, for the reporters and editors thrown in prison for doing their job, and for the victims of corruption whose last, best hope was having the crimes committed against them revealed by an independent media. But most of all, it is worrying for anyone who wants to see a strong, modern China take its place our emerging, globalized and increasingly interdependent world. "Experts" both in and out of China can explain all they want about why China is not ready for greater democracy and representative government, why China is different, why Chinese culture values social harmony over individual expression, and so on, ad infinitum. Well, fine. There's a lot to be said for gradual evolution over violent revolution, and certainly what's appropriate for the United States or Western Europe isn't appropriate for every other country in disparate stages of development. However...

A country that does not allow the watchdog of an independent press or unfettered public discourse will find it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances, to innovate and most of all, to see to the needs of its people. How can it, when the peoples' needs remain covered up, hidden, as if by some sort of national shame?

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