In July 2003, the government imposed radical reform on the Chinese media. Government and communist party bodies were banned from managing for-sale publications apart from the national official daily, the sole party’s theoretical review, two provincial publications and one municipal. All other publications had to fall in with the laws of the market - a revolution in China. The year 2003 also saw the emergence of major media groupings in the written press and broadcast media, expanding to 2,000 newspapers, 9,000 magazines and 2,000 television channels.
But this did not mean that the communist party slackened its grip on the content of the news. On several occasions, particularly during the Sars crisis, the authorities, through the Publicity Department (formerly propaganda) punished journalists who investigated the lies and inadequacies of the authorities in the face of the epidemic. During 2003, as never before, journalists, particularly the major media, pushed back the limits of censorship. It remained however strictly forbidden to publicly criticise the sole party system. At least 23 journalists and about 50 cyberdissidents are in jail, often serving long sentences, for having called for democracy or denouncing abuses on the part of the communist authorities. Throughout 2003, around a dozen other journalists were punished for raising sensitive issues. The weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, a leading exponent of investigative journalism for many years, once again had its editorial leaders removed by the government over articles seen as too independent.
Beijing’s media management of the Sars crisis was very revealing of the communist party’s vision of press freedom. After a period of several months when all articles on the epidemic were banned, the government suddenly swept up the media in a propaganda campaign and national mobilisation to counter the scourge. But government management of the epidemic provoked press criticism. In April an editorialist in the China Youth Daily wrote: "The country reacted stupidly." "We didn’t just lie to the international community about this disaster, we also refused their help," said the newspaper, which is close to President Hu Jintao. Some observers said that the press discovered a new enthusiasm for independence during the Sars crisis. But a foreign correspondent in Beijing put in it context: "Over a few weeks we went from silence to propaganda, via self-criticism. None of it really looked much like press freedom." Throughout this time websites and even mobile phones, via Satellite Media Services, were awash with news and rumours.
Overall the press was modernising and journalists were taking more risks by investigating social issues. One proof of this was the growing number of physical attacks on journalists. One newspaper reported in October that more than 100 Chinese journalists had been assaulted while doing their jobs in 2003. Vigilantes, police and delinquents angered by their investigations carried out these attacks. A few weeks later a company in Shanghai started offering specialist insurance for journalists.
The number of tabloids known for a seamy taste in general news rose throughout the country. In November the newspaper Xin Jing Bao (News of Beijing) began appearing on news stands countrywide. Created in agreement between press groups in Beijing and Guangzhou, the daily promised it readers a fare of "forbidden news".
Controlling the media remains an obsession for the Chinese government. The television sector is under its control through Chinese Central Television (CCTV) which runs 12 different channels. News programmes chiefly focus on national politics, activities of leaders and ideological campaigns. In February, the government launched a 24-hour news channel. CCTV provided live coverage of the US invasion of Iraq and dozens of correspondents were dispatched to the Gulf region. This was a first for Chinese television. But the commentaries only reproduced the official anti-war stance. In December the government approved the creation of a broadcast giant. The Southern Television Group incorporates two radio networks and is worth more than 900 million euros.
Moreover, CCTV signed deals with multinationals, including the Rupert Murdoch group to have its programmes broadcast to the United States and Europe. In exchange the Asian channels owned by News Corp. made a controlled entry to the Chinese market. On the other hand China still refused to allow Taiwanese channels to broadcasts there.
"2003 was the year of the corruption of the Chinese media," said Liu Feng, editor in chief of the weekly Zhongguo Xinwen Zhoukan. He said the Chinese media, dominated by the party, had no choice but to obey the wishes of top officials and to let themselves be corrupted. Bribes are commonplace in the profession, in particular to organise reporting or an article, to attend a press conference. In October, four journalists working for the Xinhua news agency in central Shanxi province were punished for acepting money the previous year from the owner of a mine where there had been a serious accident. The journalists did not report the news.
Although the Beijing government promised that journalists covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be able to work freely, foreign and special correspondents remained tightly controlled. The Chinese communist party refuses to allow them to freely investigate dissidence, underground religious movements, corruption, Aids in Hunan province, strikes, the plight of North Korean refugees, natural catastrophes or Tibetan or Uighur separatism. The battle of the airwaves hotted up in 2003 between the Chinese government and international radio stations broadcasting in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan. In Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, several campaigns were launched to counter separatism condemned as "terrorism".
Dissidence finds a voice less and less often in undergrounds newspapers. This explains the relatively low numer of journalists in prison (23) in comparison with the tens of thousands of political prisoners. On the other hand, the Internet has become a battleground between the democratic opposition and Beijing and repression is rampant. Around a dozen cyberdissidents and Internet-users were arrested or tried in 2003. And the government is continuing its efforts at Internet surveillance within a secret programme "Golden Shield".
In Hong Kong, 2003 was the year of living dangerously, as Beijing pulled the strings in an "anti-subversive" drive. But a general groundswell of protest, reported on by most journalists, meant failure for the conservative government of Tung Chee-wa. For all that, regular pressure by the Chinese authorities and the political-economic interests of some media bosses fostered self-sensorship.
At least 23 journalists imprisoned
Chen Renjie and Lin Youping have been imprisoned since July 1983 in Fuzhou in south-eastern Fujian province. They were arrested after launching a dissident publication in September 1982 Ziyou Bao (The Freedom Report), with a circulation of more than 300. The judge found them guilty of "propaganda and incitement to overthrow the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and of the socialist system" as well as spying for Taiwan. Chen Renjie was sentenced to prison for life and Lin was sentenced to death, later commuted to a life sentence. A third dissident journalist linked to Ziyou Bao, Chen Biling, was sentenced to death and executed a few months later.
Yu Dongyue, art critic on The Liuyang News, was arrested on 23 May 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in jail. He is held in Prison N°1 in southern Hunan province and was suffering serious psychological problems after prolonged periods of solitary confinement.
Chen Yanbin, co-editor of the underground magazine Tielu, was arrested at the end of 1990 and handed down consecutive sentences: eight years for "incitement to rebellion" and eight more years for "spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda". The two sentences were consolidated into 15 years in prison. In 1998, his sentence was cut by three months by the authorities at Beijing’s prison N° 2 for "good behaviour".
Zhang Yafei, co-editor of the underground magazine Tielu, was arrested in September 1990 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for "spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda". He is held in a "prison factory" where inmates repair vehicles in Jinan, capital of eastern Shandong province.
Liu Jingsheng, trade unionist and co-founder of the underground reviews Tansuo (Investigations) and Freedom Forum, was arrested on 28 May 1992 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for "counter-revolutionary propaganda". His sentence was cut by 13 months in 2000 for "good behaviour" and because he "expressed regret". He was being held in Banbuqiao detention centre in Beijing and suffering gastric problems and high blood pressure.
Wu Shishen, of the press agency Xinhua was arrested in October 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment on the direct orders of President Jiang Zemin. He was accused of "illegally disclosing state secrets" after giving a Hong Kong journalist the script of a speech that Jiang was due to give to the Communist Party Congress. Some sources close to the journalist spoke in 2003 of a possible release in 2004.
Fan Yingshang, publisher of the magazine Remen Huati (Popular Topics), was sentenced on 7 February 1996 to 15 years in prison by the Chang’an district court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, south of Beijing. He was accused of using a licence issued to publish a journal for the Chinese Social Sciences Academy to produce a newspaper. He reportedly printed more than 60,000 copies of Remen Huati which the authorities viewed as "reactionary". His associate Yang Jianguo managed to escape arrest.
Gao Qinrong, of the Xinhua press agency in central Shanxi province, was arrested on 4 December 1998 and sentenced to 13 years for "corruption", "embezzlement" and "pimping" based on false evidence. Local authorities accused him of revealing the failure of a major irrigation scheme blaming a provincial communist party leader. According to his wife, Duan Maoying, in November 2001, Gao was "very weakened. His hair has fallen out. He can no longer write, his hands shake too much." She is only allowed to visit him once a month. On 11 December 2003, the authorities prevented her from seeing her husband and confiscated her visitor’s card because it had expired. The warders refused to give her husband goods and food she had brought for him. She had to wait for several weeks to obtain a new official document.
Yu Tianxiang, trade unionist and founder of the underground review Zhongguo Gongren Guancha (Monitor of Chinese workers) has been held since January 1999. In July the same year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for "subverting state power". The review had exposed corruption on the part of officials and heads of state enterprises. Two other independent trade unionists, Wang Fengshan and Guo Xinmin, were sentenced to two years in prison for working with Yu, then released at their end of their sentences. The three workers had launched the paper after being sacked in 1995 by the public Transport Company of Tianshui in central Gansu province.
Jiang Weiping, bureau chief for the daily Wen Wei Po (published in Hong Kong) in Dalian, Liaoning province, was tried in utmost secrecy on 5 September 2001, by the town’s intermediate court and sentenced, at the start of November, to nine years in prison for "disclosing state secrets", "attempting to overthrow the government" and "illegal possession of confidential documents". He had been arrested on 5 December 2000, accused of publishing four articles in the Hong Kong magazine Qianshao about corruption among top officials in north-eastern China, implicating in particular the governor of Liaoning province, Bo Xilai, son of the Chinese communist party veteran Bo Yibo.
Lu Wanbin of Textile Daily was arrested on 22 December 2001 in Yangcheng, Jiangsu province, while investigating a strike in a clothing factory. Workers at the Huainan factory were fighting privatisation and pay cuts. He did not have time to publish the article. Wanbin, aged around 20, was a "promising" journalist, one editorial manager said.
Ma Linhai of the weekly Zhengquan Shichang Zhoukan was arrested over a 24 November 2001 article he wrote about the country’s biggest private electricity company, Huaneng Power Shichang Zhoukan, that he said had become a "family business belonging to Li", the family of the former prime minister Li Peng. All copies of the issue were withdrawn from sale.
Wang Daqi, publisher of the magazine Ecology, arrested on 24 January 2002 at his home in Hefei, capital of eastern Anhui province, was accused of "damaging national security". According to several sources, the authorities objected to the editorial line of the magazine, published since 1987, which argued for progressive democratisation for China to protect the environment. On 19 December 2002, the Hefei intermediate court sentenced him to one year in prison for publishing articles on banned subjects. One of them, first published in a Hong Kong magazine, covered the 35th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. The judges also took into account publication of extracts from a 1990s novel "Red Blood, White Snow" banned in China for its criticism of the Chinese Army. Human Rights in China has said that Wang was held in "indescribable conditions" and apparently shared his cell with more than 20 other prisoners. He should have been released in February 2003.
Xu Zerong, a historian specialised in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, found guilty of disseminating "state secrets" and of "illicit publication", was sentenced in January 2002 to 13 years in prison. He was accused of publishing historical texts abroad about the role of the Chinese Army in the Korean War. He also wrote a by-lined article in the magazine Yazhou Zhoukan about Chinese official support for Malayan communists. This revelation led to his arrest on 24 June 2000. His place of detention has been kept secret.
Yang Jianli, editor in chief of the online dissident review Yibao, has been held since April 2002 for having "no valid passport", while travelling secretly across China to investigate strikes in the north-east. A resident of the United States, Jianli was unable to contact his family or his lawyer since his arrest. In June 2003, The UN Human Rights Commission termed his detention "illegal" and called on the Chinese authorities to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation". On 5 June, the Chinese foreign minister replied that the UN body’s charges were "unfounded" and that Jianli was under judicial investigation for "illegal entry to Chinese territory and other criminal acts".
Jae-Hyun Seok, a South Korean photo-journalist, was sentenced on 22 May 2003, to two years in prison and fined 5,000 yuans (625 dollars) for "illegal people smuggling". The photographer, who worked for the US daily The New York Times and South Korean magazine Geo, will be deported from China at the end of his sentence. Seok was arrested while covering an operation to help North Korean refugees in China to reach South Korea and Japan by boat. Chinese police had set a trap for them, suggesting they would help them leave China. As they prepared to embark, security forces intercepted them and took them to special detention centres prior to sending them back to North Korea. Seok was caught in the roundup. He was held without charge for nearly two months at Yantai prison. On 4 March he was finally accused of seeking to exploit the North Korean refugees and charged with people smuggling. The South Korea government contested the charge and on the same day called on the Chinese authorities to release him, but received no reply. "We demand humanitarian treatment for Seok, who was working either as a journalist or as a human rights activist, without seeking any financial advantage for himself," said Kim Han-jyu of the South Korean foreign ministry. The protest failed and on 19 December, the appeal court confirmed the two-year prison sentence.
On 3 January 2003, the official Prosecutor’s Office Daily reported that Zhang Wei, Zuo Shangwen and Ou Yan, managers of illegal publications Redian Jiyao (Advisor on current affairs) and Shishi Zixun (Summary of news topics), had been sentenced on 25 December 2002, to six years and five and a half years respectively by the municipal court in southern Chongqing. The judge convicted them of publishing articles based on "political rumours, shocking military reports and other news tricking the public and poisoning youth". According to the court, Zhang downloaded articles and photos from the Internet to produce the two publications. He sent them for printing to Zuo. Zhang sold copies, mainly in Chongqing and Chengdu, Sichuan province. Ou was charged with keeping the books for the two publications. The autorities said the three of them sold more than a million copies making a profit of 10,000 yuans (nearly 950 euros) between April 2001 and July 2002. The judge said they were engaged in illegal business since all media in China should be owned by the state.
Cameraman Kim Seung-jin and photographer Geum Myeong-soek were arrested by Shanghai police while covering an operation processing North Korean refugees at the Japanese School in Shanghai by members of the Japanese NGO, The society to help returnees to North Korea (HRNK). Head of the organisation, Fumiaki Yamada, a south Korean activist, Kim Kijyu and nine North Koreans (including two children) were also arrested. The Chinese authorities confirmed the arrests and representatives of the Japanese and South Korean consulates were allowed to visit them in prison. The two freelance South Korean journalists were deported on 28 August after 20 days in detention. The two activists were also deported to Japan. However there was no news about the fate of the nine North Koreans.
Journalists Zhang Yafei and Wang Daqi should have been freed after serving their sentences but the authorities never confirmed their release. There is also no news about two journalists who could still be in prison. Li Jian, editor in chief of the business Journal of Xinjiang, (north-western China), was believed arrested in November 1999 for publishing a reader’s letter exposing corruption among local authoritites. Feng Daxun, former journalist and an activist with the banned Chinese Democratic Party was accused of "subversive acts" in June 2001. He was accused of conducting interviews with workers demonstrating against delays in paying salaries and layoffs in south-western Neijiang.
Two journalists were released in 2003.
Jiang Qisheng, imprisoned since May 1999, was released on 21 May. He had been convicted of incitement to subversion after writing a series of articles on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on 4 June 1989. On 28 October, Kang Yuchun, dissident and founder of the underground review Freedom Forum was released from prison N° 2 in Beijing. Arrested in May 1992, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for counter-revolutionary activities and propaganda. He was released five years before the end of his sentence.
Journalist Pierre Haski, correspondent in China for the French newspaper Libération was prevented from entering the court house at Liaoyang, north-east of Beijing on 15 January 2003 to cover the trial of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, leaders of workers’ demonstrations in the city in spring 2002. The two were charged with "subversive crime". The entire media, national and foreign, were barred from the hearing. Haski was briefly arrested and questioned by public security agents before being expelled from the city. The Chinese authorities said he had not asked for permission to attend the hearing. The trial had only been announced two days beforehand through a small notice, posted at the Palace of Justice.
On 23 January police in south-eastern Zhuhai arrested five journalists from Macao covering a pro-democracy demonstration between the border towns of Macao and Zhuhai, during the trial of dissident Wang Bingzhang. They were released after two hours of interrogation and allowed to return to Macao. Three of them were working for the Hong Kong television channels TVB, ATV and Cable Television. The other two wrote for Macao newspapers. They all said they had been well treated by police but complained that nothing was said publicly about their arrests.
Several Beijing-based Asian journalists were briefly arrested on 30 March trying to cover the first Chinese demonstration against the war in Iraq. The Chinese media did not cover this banned rally of students and young punks. A demonstration in front of the US Embassy organised the same day by 200 foreigners living in the capital, was only reported in the official English-language China Daily and the Beijing bi-weekly Shenghuo Shibao.
Beijing police arrested three foreign journalists on 1 July covering a demonstration in front of the Friendship Store by 200 staff protesting against its announced closure. Frédéric Bobin, of the French daily Le Monde, Norwegian Kjersti Strommen and a Hong Kong television journalist were about to interview demonstrators when police led them to a bar where they questioned them before taking them to the nearest police station. They were ordered not to write about the demonstration and were released a few hours later. Chinese media had been ordered not to cover the event.
In November, a journalist with public CCTV was arrested for several hours by authorities in Suixian district in Henan, east central China, then sent back to Beijing. She was reporting on an HIV-positive person caring for orphans whose parents had died from Aids, rife in the region.
Journalists physically attacked
The official Chinese Association of Journalists announced on 8 November 2003 - national journalists’ day - that at least 260 members of the profession had been victims of violent attack over the previous three years, more than one hundred of them in 2003. Reporters Without Borders has not been able to independently confirm all these figures. In 2003, reporters on the dailies Nanjing Ribao and Nanjing Shenbao were beaten up by watchmen at the education department in Jiangsu province. Staff at a cleaning company in central Feng Tai Shilao district beat a journalist from the Beijing daily Jinghua Shibao and a journalist working for the daily Jinan Shibao was beaten by police officers. An investigative journalist on the magazine Xin Kuaibao was attacked and left for dead by unidentified assailants. Reporters on the dailies Jingbao Huashang Shenbao and Chongqinq Shangbao were physically attacked by businessmen. At least five other TV journalists, particularly from TV Huangjin Shi Pindao, Liaoning TV, Shenyang TV and Guangdong TV, were beaten while reporting.
Ten journalists were attacked on 1 August at Nanjing, north-west of Shanghai. According to the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, security staff at the education department in Jiangsu province denied access to a conference to three journalists without invitations. Wang Jinhui, of the daily Nanjing Post, said he and his colleagues were insulted and jostled on the stairs. Accompanied by reporters from the dailies Jinling Evening Post and Jiangnan Times, they tried to report the incident to the department’s management. Guards once again intervened and a scuffle began as photographers tried to take photos. Three journalists were shut in a room for around 40 minutes while the others were pushed into a lift and beaten up. Gao Aiping of the daily Morning Post lost consciousness. It was his third experience of violence by the authorities since the start of 2003. The authorities asked the journalists not to report on the incidents in their media. Police concluded after a quick investigation that the incident had been "an industrial dispute".
At the start of November, a crew from Hunan TV was assaulted by employees of an illegal mine that was polluting a river in southern Hunan province.
On 12 November, Xu Xiangyu, of national CCTV, was manhandled and thrown to the ground by a factory boss a Bao De in central Shanxi province, who surprised him filming a depot stocking dangerous substances. The boss then told some employees to punish the journalist, whose press card and video camera were seized. Xu had made use of a visit to the factory by the environment protection department to conduct his own investigation.
On 24 December, Liu Feixiao, of the official Xinhua agency in Xiangtan, Hunan province, was beaten by security agents as she covered a demonstration in front of the town hall. Police brutally dispersed demonstrators and then tried to stop Liu from taking photos and filming. When she refused, watchmen from the town hall attacked and dragged her to a room inside to beat her up. She was left with sprained wrists and her legs covered in blood. Police refused to register her complaint.
A man claiming he had a bomb burst into Reuters Beijing bureau on 12 March 2003 and took around a dozen journalists working there hostage. Fang Qinghui was classified as mentally ill by the authorities and therefore denied the right to work or marry. He wanted to use the British agency to protest against corruption and injustice in China. He kept the hostages there for two hours demanding to be interviewed on camera as the only way to make himself heard. Security forces overpowered, arrested and detained him. No journalist was hurt.
Harassment and obstruction
Between Janunary and March 2003, the authorities seized more than 570,000 copies of "illegal" publications, including 50,000 books and disks of a "pornographic" nature. The official press agency said that 136 suspects had been arrested in connection with printing and sales of these banned publications.
In January Beijing announced a first series of reforms for the written press sector, to "rejuvenate the news industry". Newspaper circulation figures, frequently exaggerated by management to boost advertising revenue, were to be subjected to stricter checks. Newspapers would have the right to increase pagination without prior permission, while periodicals would be able to publish supplementary special numbers.
The government specified that all publications must continue to stick to the party line and maintain a quota of articles and analyses put out by the official Xinhua agency. The major newspapers were to carry out an internal audit before June to make best use of their human and financial resources. In August, the political bureau, chaired by Hu Jintao discussed how to develop the media economically while maintaining ideological control. On 14 August, party leaders announced their decisions. The official newspapers were to be deprived of revenue from compulsory subscriptions traditionally imposed on various party administrations and leaders. National media were to be opened up to foreign investment. Media specialists greeted the announced reforms with some scepticism. But in some provinces, the effects of the first reforms were soon felt. At least two new dailies opened in Shanghai in 2003. There were already 100 regular publications, some of which survive solely on advertising and cover price.
On 3 January it was learned that four members of the spiritual Falungong movement had been sentenced on 30 December 2002 to prison terms ranging from seven to 20 years for having pirated cable TV channels in central Qinghai Province in August 2002 to broadcast programmes promoting the banned movement.
At a work meeting from 7 to 9 January at the party department of publicity (formerly propaganda), officials called on national media to "uncover the truth" while avoiding coverage of industrial unrest, particularly by workers and farmers, since this type of reporting could pose a threat to social order. The meeting concluded that the media should follow the party line and boost security to protect broadasts from pirating, particularly by Falungong. The new propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan, reminded media bosses of the role they should play in "resolving the country’s social problems" and keeping coverage of sensitive topics to a minimum while promoting the "three representations theory" expounded by former president Jiang Zemin.
The head of government in Hong Kong said on 28 January that the media’s comments had been taken into account in the new law on "national security" intended to combat "subversion" and "crimes of state". As a result an article allowing journalists to be jailed for possession of "seditious publications" was struck out of the draft law. Moreover unauthorised access to "state secrets" would only be punished if obtained illegally.
Free expression organisations condemned the changes as "cosmetic". The government presented a new version of the draft to the legislative council on 27 February. This stage of the debate on the controversial reform of Article 23 of the Fundamental Law (Hong Kong Constitution negotiated before the handover) unleashed a new wave of protests, particularly by journalists who feared a further crackdown on the investigative press. Local journalists said that publishing news damaging to the state would become a criminal act. The journalists pressed for a public interest defence to be allowed.
At a parliamentary session on 25 March, the government recalled the territory’s "constitutional responsibilities to China: As a special administrative region, Hong Kong had to promulgate laws banning acts of "treason, subversion and appropriation of state secrets". The authorities said the law on "national security" must be adopted by the end of July 2003.
But civil society fought back harder. At the start of June, the government agreed to amend the article on "seditious acts" and "publication of seditious news". At the same time a top Chinese official said the adoption of the law was crucial if Hong Kong wanted to be an integral part of China. A demonstration on 1 July attracted nearly 500,000 calling for the draft law to be withdrawn. Called by dozens of civil society organisations, in particular three journalists organisations, the demonstrators were hailed in the Hong Kong press but ignored by the Chinese media. The following day the government said it was sticking by the draft law. A few days later the boss of press group Hong Kong Economic Journal said he would sell up if the law went through. On 7 July, just two days before the promulgation date, head of government Tung Chee-hwa, announced a postponement. Journalists celebrated but Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press called opposition to the draft law "treachery". Tung said he had responded to the people’s "concerns". Two days later nearly 50,000 people demonstrated around parliament calling for a total withrawal of the "anti-subversion" law. On 5 September, Tung Chee-hwa said the draft law would be withdrawn to "give people time to understand it". This new setback for Beijing went unreported in China.
In February as atypical pneumonia, Sars, spread in China and in Hong Kong, the propaganda department in south-eastern Guangdong monitored and censored news about it. The national newspapers were also ordered to stop writing about the spread of the disease. At the end of February the spokesman of the provincial health department Feng Shaoming, said that the propaganda department would take charge of supplying information to the media on the subject. The official was forcd to deny articles and reports based on information supplied by his own department. In the following weeks, local and national media received very little reliable information on the number of sufferers.
The obscene publications court in Hong Kong on 20 February rejected an appeal from the weekly Eastweek against a ban on its 30 October 2002 edition, that carried a revealing cover photograph of a an actress who had been kidnapped, causing a general outcry in the political and media circles. A judge had banned sales of the issue categorised as "obscene", on 7 November 2002. The management had tried to get the sanction overturned to avoid any legal action. The same day the government said it would take action against the magazine for publishing an "obscene" photo. The publisher of Eastweek was at risk of three years in jail and a fine of more than 120,000 euros.
The Chinese authorities, particularly the foreign affairs office of the autonmous region of Xinjiang, in the north-west refused to allow foreign press representatives in China to cover the 24 February earthquake that killed at least 250 people. This was confirmed by several correspondents in Beijing, particularly France 2 and Al-Jazeera television. Despite this around a dozen international reporters managed to reach the province, risking arrest and expulsion. Other foreign media made do with footage and news from official Chinese media, particularly from public television CCTV, the only television allowed into the province. It chiefly showed footage of Chinese soliders helping thousands of victims. But no independent observer was allowed to visit the scene of the disaster and some sources contested the official casualty figures.
At the end of February, vice-president of CCTV, Zhang Changming, said that foreign media wishing to set up in China would need to show restraint. He said expansion of AOL Time Warner and Star TV (News Corp.) should not for the present go beyond southern Guangdong province and that the Chinese government would only allow those foreign channels that observed national legislation. No infringement of Chinese law on "sex, violence, national security or political stability" would be tolerated. Nevertheless at the beginning of March, Rupert Murdoch obtained a licence for News Corp.’s top Mandarin channel Xingkong Weishi to broadcast to luxury hotels and accommodation for foreigners throughout China. In exchange Chinese channels got satellite distribution for CCTV and CCTV-9 on the British market.
On 3 March, the authorities blocked sales of the latest issue of the magazine Xinwen Zhoukan (New weekly of China) over an article seen as disrespectful towards the outgoing Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji. The Internet version was also pulled. The magazine resumed publication but two editorial managers were sacked for allowing the article to appear. Zhu Rongji reportedly personally demanded that the propaganda department sanction the glossy publication produced by the semi-private Zhongguo Xinwen She (China News Service).
Top-selling writer Yu Jie told Reuters in March that he had been censored in the Chinese press because of his pro-American stance in favour of intervention in Iraq. An online petition he posted supporting the coalition forces had been knocked off Chinese forums by the "censors". His latest article that appeared in the liberal weekly Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu Baodao (The 21st Century World Herald), had been cut from the second part of its original heading: "War in Iraq and the supremacy of human rights". In 2002, Yu lost his position with a public institution after criticising the anti-American content of Chinese academic books.
In the week of 10 March, the weekly Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu was banned from appearing for one month by the propaganda department of southern Guangdong province, where it is published by the press group Southern Daily of Quangzhou. The ban was reportedly linked to publication of a 3 March article by Li Rui, former secretary to Mao Zedong, openly criticising communist leaders and calling for political reform. It could also have been due to an uncompromising article about the nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea. A journalist on Nanfang Zhoumo (also published by the Southern Daily group) told Reporters Without Borders the Li Rui remarks had already been published in January as a column in the weekly China Chronicle. Reuters said the closure was no surprise to the management of Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu Baodao. Editorial executives, particularly the editor in chief, were sacked and other staff forced to take "political education" classes.
In the week of 17 March, the government banned journalists from handling the atypical pneumonia epidemic, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), that was provoking panic in Hong Kong and throughout the world. For several weeks the government forced the media to remain silent, leaving people in complete ignorance. One month after the first alarm was raised there were 1,445 Sars cases in China, of whom 65 died. Criticism from the international community accusing the government of deliberately concealing the progress of epidemic, forced the authorities into an abrupt turnaround. From mid-April the government orchestrated a national Sars media campaign. National television gave out round the clock advice on how to counter the virus, while the newspapers put Sars on the front pages, knocking off news about the Iraq war.
Journalists were invited to visit the capital’s hospitals to observe the commitment of the authorities to battle the scourge and government organised almost daily press conferences. Despite this the government feared losing control. The big circulation weeklies Caijing, Sanlian and China Newsweek, were closely watched by the propaganda department. The government even took advantage of the epidemic to name a new editor in chief for the Quangzhou weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, known for its liberal stance and investigative reporting. Party officials accused it of disclosing "state secrets", particularly on Sars. In Guangdong province, new party secretary general, Zhang Dejiang, tightened his grip on the local press, considered more liberal than elsewhere. In November 2002, he had slammed Nanfang Zhoumo as the "shame of the Guangdong media". Within a few months, several local newspaper bosses were replaced by officials from the propaganda department, with no journalistic experience. From April to June, the newspapers were forced to toe the national campaign line on the fight against Sars. In June, the Beijing Youth Daily and Beijing Morning, the capital’s main dailies, called the World Health Organisation (WHO) 24 June lifting of advice against travelling to Beijing - signalling the end of the virus in the capital - a "great victory for national spirit".
A young graphic artist, Sun Zhigang, died in detention in a Guangzhou police station on 17 March. Local media were prevented from covering this suspicious death. It was a month before it was reported in the daily Southern Metropolis News. As the family tried to discover the truth, many newspapers in China and in Hong Kong covered the story. At the beginning of May, the government in Guangzhou, worried by how big the story was becoming, ordered the local media to stop covering it.
From 19 March to 8 April, the authorities in north-eastern Haicheng blocked publication of news on food poisoning that affected 2,500 children who had drunk soya milk distributed in schools. From 8 April the Beijing media condemned the negligence of the authorities, accusing them of having tried to hush up the outbreak.
On 21 March, Charles Li, also known as Chuck Lee, a US follower of the spiritual Falungong movement, was sentenced to three years in prison by the intermediate court of Yangzhou in eastern Jiangsu province, that also ordered his deportation at the end of his sentence. He was found guilty of "sabotage of state television equipment" for pirating a TV network to broadcast Falungong messages. On 27 May, Charles Li began a hunger strike after the Yanzhou court rejected his 9 May appeal. Representatives of the US embassy were no longer allowed to visit him after his transfer to eastern Nanjing on 12 May because of Sars restrictions. He was apparently put under heavy psychological pressure.
On 23 March, as US forces began their offensive in Iraq, state television CCTV censored a pre-recorded television debate featuring two westerners opposed to the war. Despite public opinion being largely against the war in Iraq, the Chinese authorities did their utmost to show the least possible signs of anti-American feeling, particularly in the media.
The state Press and Publications Administration (SPPA) threatened on 28 March to ban three Chinese-language publications produced by the US press groups Newsweek, Forbes and Harvard Business Review. These three, all trying to penetrate the Chinese market, had to obtain the prior approval of the SPPA and submit to very strict laws on news content. One leading SPPA official, Wang Huapeng, told the official English language China Daily: "We have not given permission for any of these three North American periodicals to appear, either independently or through a Chinese publisher." Articles carried in Hong Kong and Taiwan newspapers however stated that the SPPA had given them publication licences. The magazine Harvard Business Review, which had already published five issues in Chinese, reportedly broke Chinese law by using a licence number allocated to a Chinese publisher. Forbes apparently made an agreement in November 2002 with a Hong Kong publisher to enter the Chinese market, but without SPPA approval. Still according to the SPPA, the three magazines were running the risk of fines, confiscation of equipment, even criminal charges. The magazines were therefore suspended while awaiting an official licence.
At the end of March, during a meeting of the political committee of the communist party, the new head of propaganda, Li Changchun, urged the state media to be more innovative in their coverage of government meetings and official activities of leaders, pointing to the stodginess of the articles and their presentation. Li said these changes were crucial for the state media to fulfil their role as "guides of public opinion" and to serve the party. He said this meant complete commitment from journalists. Former party secretary in Guangdong province, known for the relative freedom of its media, Li appeared bent on following the lead of his predecessor, Ding Guangeng, who exerted tight control on the state media.
When US troops entered Baghdad in April, China stepped up censorship of television footage, so that the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad was cut down and accompanied by cryptic commentary. The authorities hoped to avoid giving the impression to Chinese society that external intervention can provoke regime change.
In the week of 1 April, Zhang Dongming, a top official in Guangdong province’s communist party propaganda department was appointed deputy editor in chief of the press group Southern Daily and editor in chief of the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo. He replaced Shang Xi, in post for two years, who was demoted to the position of deputy. His task was to get a firmer grip on the editorial content of the group’s publications. The move was believed linked to an appeal in the daily Nanfang Dushi Bao (southern town newspaper) urging the international community to investigate the atypical pneumonia epidemic in the Guangzhou region. This was at a time when the government had banned all Chinese media from carrying any independent news on the spread of the disease in southern China. In March, the weekly had also carried a report running to more than 20 pages on outgoing prime minister Zhu Rongji. The reverential tone of the report on the role of Zhu upset Beijing, which saw in it an indirect attack on President Jiang Zemin, also at the end of his term. On 10 April a group of journalists anonymously published a poem expressing the distress of the editorial staff at the resumption of control over Nanfang Zhoumo. Several experienced journalists left the paper to help in the May launch of a new newspaper in Shanghai Dongfang Zhaobao (Morning news from the East).
Nanfang Zhoumo had been known for nearly ten years as a newspaper of record for the Chinese press. Very popular with intellectuals for its in-depth investigations, it often paid the price in censorship. Propaganda officials censored several articles on the Sars epidemic in the 24 April edition of Nanfang Zhoumo. In particular the newspaper had reported, based on interviews in the town’s hospital, that Shanghai had deliberately isolated 38 suspected Sars cases during the WHO visit in April. The report was completely reworked. The magazine also referred to numbers of Shanghai residents who made frequent calls to a hotline to say they were ill but too scared to go to hospital. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that an interview with Dr Zhong Nanshan, head of the Guangzhou institute for respiratory disease, recently congratulated by the prime minister for his work against Sars, had also been censored because it contained "state secrets". In the interview, Dr Zhong described how he had caught the Sars virus himself in November 2002, well before the start of the epidemic and said there was no vaccination against the disease. The provincial authorities reminded the newspaper that articles on Sars had to be based exclusively on news from Xinhua press agency or the government-run People’s Daily.
In the week of 1 April, the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) indefinitely froze the transmission rights of Sun TV for broadcasting light entertainment programmes made by a Taiwan channel. The SARTF considered that Sun TV had "violated the regulations on content of programmes broadcast (...) and defied the retransmission rules of SARFT". According to media specialist Anne Ling, "SARFT is worried about sensitive topics that Sun TV could handle" particularly from programmes made by Taiwanese television Eastern Broadcasting (ETTV).
No Chinese newspaper carried statements by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 16 April on the risk of the spread of the Sars epidemic without emergency measures in China. The figure of 200 people ill with the virus in Beijing also went unreported. Only the official English-language China Daily carried an item headlined "WHO: no hiding the disease in Beijing" distorting the organisation’s message.
Police in north-eastern Liaoyang arrested several trade unionists on 19 April and forbade them to meet a US delegation of diplomats and journalists coming to Liaoyang for the purpose.
An editor in chief and head of foreign news at the Xinhua agency were both removed from their posts in April for publicising official advice about the Sars virus. At the end of April, the central committee of the Chinese national council put out a document on public health steps taken by the authorities to combat Sars. Yang Zidi, editor in chief, decided to incorporate it into an article. But the information was protected by a security code that banned publication and which the journalists did not know about. The central committee and the national council demanded that the head of Xinhua sanction the staff responsible for disclosing the information. Yang and the foreign news head were both reassigned to different jobs. The salaries of all foreign department staff were frozen for three months. In June, Xinhua management announced that the housing allowance of a number of its salaried staff would be severely reduced for the month. This placed all the agency’s journalists into a precarious financial position. Many of them had to leave their lodgings because they were unable to pay their rent, the housing allowing representing between 500 and 800 yuans per month. Agency staff said this latest repressive measure was yet again intended to punish the international department of Xinhua over publication of confidential news about Sars. Journalists in the Beijing bureau, among the 500 people affected, circulated a protest petition. Some journalists however were reluctant to sign for fear of further reprisals. Others planned to leave the agency.
In mid-May, there was further censorship of a Sars report, this time by a state-run cable news channel that suggested that local and central authorities had made mistakes in managing the epidemic.
Journalist Chen Jieren was sacked on 29 May from the weekly Young Reference published by the press group China Youth Daily, for an article he wrote on 21 May on students prostituting themselves in the south-eastern city of Wuhan. The same day, two editorial heads were indefinitely suspended for allowing the article to appear in which a young woman revealed that she worked as a prostitute to fund her studies and that nearly 10 per cent of students in the city did the same. On 23 May the newspaper said that the "there was no serious basis" for the article, which had already been picked up by several newspapers and had gone all round the country.
At the beginning of June, the propaganda department summoned the heads of all Beijing’s major media. One journalist summed up the tenor of the meeting: "The party blew the whistle on the euphoria of the Sars crisis. We had thought the epidemic would allow us greater press freedom. But the party did not share that view." Newspaper bosses were verbally ordered not to follow up the arrest of a Shanghai businessman, Zhou Zhengyi, implicated in a scandal that threatened to smear people close to former president Jiang Zemin. The propaganda bosses also warned journalists against "scoops" that could damage the government’s interests. They referred to the Sars coverage and an accident to a Chinese military submarine.
On 4 June, anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese authorities blocked access to the independent news website Bumei Zhiye. As in previous years, the authorities did their best to see that this shameful date for the communist regime passed unmentioned. Overnight on 3-4 June, 1989, several thousand pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese authorities appeared to have got into the habit of censoring Bumei Zhiye at each major political event. In November 2002, the site was blocked throughout the 16th Communist Party Congress. Launched in January 2001, Bumei Zhiye has become one of the country’s major independent sites.
The weekly Beijing Xinbao and two of its editors were sacked in the week of 9 June after it carried an article critical of the central government’s attitude to Sars. At the same time, the news site Asia Times Online (ATOL), which had also given a report on the spread of the epidemic in the Beijing suburbs was accused by the city’s public health authorities of "fabricating rumours".
On 11 June, the authorities banned the foreign press from attending the trial at the intermediate court in north-eastern Shenyang of Chinese businessman Yang Bin, accused of financial fraud, corruption and illegal land occupation.
The 20 June edition of the financial magazine Caijing was withdrawn from news stands, without any official reason being given. The banned issue had covered a banking scandal implicating party officials. In May, the newspaper had caused a sensation by publishing an interview with Dr Jiang Yonyang, who revealed the seriousness of the Sars epidemic.
At the end of June the authorities banned the media from investigating or using articles on a corruption case implicating former Shanghai communist party leader, Huang Ju, and the city’s business community leaders. Shanghai journalists said they had come under pressure from their bosses to drop their investigations.
Also at the end of June the authorities banned articles or broadcasting of footage of a police raid on several villages in Henan province, south of Beijing, where thousands of Aids sufferers lived. A thousand armed public security ministry agents went into the villages, ransacking houses and arresting around 15 people. Local press reports condemned "HIV-positive delinquents" as "trouble makers".
In June, the weekly Beijing Xinbao, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily group was closed on government order. Two weeks earlier the newspaper carried an article criticising government policy, headlined, "Seven reasons to be disgusted by China".
Also in June, a popular television series On the Republican Path, was banned on the orders of President Hu Jintao. Its 19th Century historical intrigues made too many explicit allusion to democratic reforms and to relations between the current and former president, Jiang Zemin. The series portrays a young incompetent emporer controlled by a regent responsible for his political education. Often seen as a successor with a weak personality, Hu Jintao reportedly interpreted the series as legitimising Jiang Zemin’s domination of the curent political scene. The official reason for the ban was that the series did not show historical truth.
Sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post on 1 July that the party propaganda department had banned him from speaking during the Sars epidemic after a broadcast he took part in on the public education channel headlined, "Sticking to the truth is a scientific position. Fifteen received ideas on Sars". He implied that the government had lied about the reality of the epidemic. At the end of the programme, editorial staff had warned him the propaganda department had forbidden him to talk about Sars. The sociology professor at the People’s University said that the media and academics were under strong pressure to say nothing about the government attitude to the Sars epidemic.
At the 15th Young Communist League congress in July, journalists were entreated by party officials to give a positive view of events. "Journalists must ensure their role of safeguard, speak of positive things and contribute to the unity and stability of society," said the secretary general of the league, Zhao Yong.
At the start of September, Di Minglei of the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, resigned from his job after suffering harassment that he said obstructed his work. He explained on the website: dajiyuan.com (The great century) that some of his articles, particularly about attacks on journalists in Nanjing, capital of southern Jiangsu province, had been censored. He had also had the quality of his work criticised and come under pressure over the content of his articles, viewed as too independent. Finally, following a defamation case, that Di Minglei had won, the management of Nanfang Zhoumo published his apologies without consulting him. At the same time journalist Lin Chufang wrote an open letter to the publisher of Nanfang Zhoumo lamenting a falling off in the quality of the liberal weekly. In the following weeks, journalists on Nanfang Zhoumo told Reporters Without Borders that they were under pressure from their department heads and propaganda department as a result of these incidents.
During September, the government licensed eight new privately owned television stations for a market estimated at 300 million viewers. In parallel, some 30 foreign cable channels received permission to broadcast to China. In April, CNBC Asia Pacific and the Shanghai Media Group signed a partnership to create a new broadcast grouping.
At the end of September, Guangdong propaganda department ordered local media to change their articles on an orgy organised by nearly 200 Japanese tourists in Zhuhai hotel. The media were accused of fuelling anti-Japanese sentiment and local journalists who had broken the story were reminded that Japanese investments were important to the province. On 20 November, a few weeks after the revelation of the orgy by New Express, the daily devoted its front page to the story of a retired Japanese man who over 13 years donated more than two million euros to the region’s schools and hospitals.
On 12 October, the Chinese media did not report an important meeting of communist party leaders that decided in particular to include the right to own private property in the country’s constitution.
At the start of November the propaganda department asked the major media to limit its articles on the arrest of a serial killer who had apparently killed 65 people over the previous two years. Broken by a local newspaper in Hebei province, the story was picked up by some national dailies then by the international press. The official Xinhua agency only produced a dispatch a few days later. National CCTV completely censored the story. In an article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, a journalism lecturer at Beijing University predicted an increase in articles on crime. "These story sell (...). And now the Chinese newspapers respond first of all to market pressures (...). But this still means taking a big risk with the authorities who do not wish to see this type of story." A criminology lecturer told Agence France-Presse that the government does not agree with publishing al these cases, because, in a way, they show social problems, particularly the gulf between rich and poor."
On 22 November, Liu Yunshan, head of party central committee’s propaganda department said that 673 official publications had had their licences withdrawn under media reform begun at the start of the year. Presented as a new step in modernising China’s press the restructuring would close non-viable publications. Liu Yunshan also announced that 87 publications had been privatised because they appeared able to balance their accounts.
Guangdong High Court banned six journalists from attending hearings for a six-month period, at the end of November. The judges complained that the journalists from the dailies Nanfang, Yangcheng Evening News and Guangzhou had published articles without official permission. They had investigated a divorce case and revealed compromising details about some of the court’s judges. In reply, the newspapers said the decision went against legal transparency and threatened the journalists’ careers.
At the start of December, President Hu Jintao told a party conference on propaganda not to abandon the principle. He urged the media to show "patriotism and socialism.""
A British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell urged Chinese authorities on 18 December, to stop scrambling BBC radio, particularly its Mandarin programmes and blocking its website. On a visit to Beijing, the minister reminded the government of its commitment when it was attributed the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to allow foreign media to work freely. The authorities declined to confirm that the BBC programmes were being scrambled and did not agree to end the interference that had gone on for several years.
In December, two reporters and two heads of service at the daily Jingbao, published in southern Shenzhen, were harassed by police and propaganda services for investigating the murders of 12 women from May to September 2003. Police had ignored the complaints from their families. The authorities asked the newspaper management to sack them but it refused.
Several foreign correspondents in Beijing were in December refused the right to interview Dr Jiang Yanyoung who revealed the existence of the Sars virus at the beginning of the year. Since March the doctor had been under police surveillance and his phone tapped to prevent him talking freely to the press.
In mid-October, Li Yaling, reporter on business paper Chengdu Shangbao was transferred to the daily’s archive department after publishing an article in June about a three year old girl who died from hunger after police forcibly put her mother in a detox centre.
In December, the authorities banned cable and satellite TV operators from providing subscribers with the Taiwanese channel Dongsen Television, of the broadcaster Eastern Multimedia Group. Public security agents checked most of Beijing’s luxury residential complexes to see that the ban was in force. Dongsen Television, that produces only light entertainment, has 300,000 subscribers, most of them Taiwanese living in China.