Area: 9,598,050 sq.km.
Head of state: Hu Jintao
The government continued its privatisation of the media and kept up its ruthless harassment of reformist journalists. The written press, experiencing competition for the first time, took some chances but was monitored and sanctioned by the propaganda department. With at least 27 journalists in prison, China was at 1st January 2005, the world’s largest prison for journalists.
"China is deprived of the right to press freedom, does not permit political divergence and bans all media independence. Its political progress lags well behind its economic development and evolving attitudes," said the intellectual Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France 2004 press freedom award.
A flourishing written press is monitored by the Propaganda Department, now renamed the Publicity Department. Newspaper editors enjoy every freedom to boost profits, through advertising, updating their publications or even raising capital on the stock exchange. But they have to fall in with the orders of the communist party and ensure that their staff operate a system of self-censorship.
The Beijing Youth Daily, China’s second highest circulation newspaper was quoted on the Hong Kong stock exchange in December 2004. But the newspaper remains under the control of the Communist Youth League. Its editor explains its success thus, "As long as we respect the law, we can report on what interests people." This forced privatisation has pushed more than 600 publications into closure while the system of compulsory subscriptions to the official press is on its way out.
The government has deployed huge resources to maintain the monopoly of state radio and television CCTV and the press agency Xinhua. Systems such as a "great wall of sound" allowing it to scramble international radio were stepped up. With the help of French company Thalès, ALLISS aerials were set up in every corner of the country to block foreign radio waves. The few Chinese television stations that criticise the government, on cable or satellite, have been harassed. New Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV), accused of supporting the Falungong movement, has been targeted by the Beijing authorities since its launch in February 2002. The operator of New Skies Satellites buckled under constant pressure and ended the channel’s broadcasts in China. And Chinese diplomats leaned on their French counterparts once NDTV was again beamed into Asia via the Paris-based Eutelsat W5 satellite. In July, the administration launched a campaign against the installation of illegal satellite dishes to block broadcast of "reactionary, violent and pornographic" programmes. Thousands of dishes have already been removed from homes.
Fear is also a useful instrument of control for the communist party. Such was the case with the arrest of management figures on the reformist daily Nanfang Dushi Bao that sent a shock wave through the profession. The nearly six months of detention experienced by Cheng Yizhong, star editor of this bold Guangdong-based newspaper, reminded everyone of the lines not to cross. The newspaper had carried an investigation about a student who was tortured to death in a Guangdong police station and revealed a new case of the Sars epidemic in the city without waiting for official permission. Cheng Yizhong was released but expelled from the communist party and did not get his job back. Two of his colleagues, Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, who were handed down harsh prison sentences, are still in prison.
National and international protests probably contributed to the release in 2004 of Liu Jingsheng, founder of the underground review Tansuo (Exploration), after 12 years in prison, and that of South Korean photographer Jae-hyun Seok, sentenced to two years for his coverage of North Korean refugees in China, and the reduction in sentence for journalist Wu Shishen sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1993, on the orders of the former president Jiang Zemin for having "illegally divulged state secrets".
On the other hand, nothing could prevent journalist Yu Dongyue, detained after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, from descending into madness. A former fellow inmate, who fled China, said the journalist had been tied to an electric post and left in the hot sun for several days and then held in solitary confinement for two years.
Police continued to harass dissident journalists, including Shi Tao who was arrested on 24 November 2004 for having "divulged confidential state intelligence". Police raided his home without official authorisation, arrested him and seized his computer and papers. Before leaving they warned his wife not to tell anyone, particularly not the media, or her husband would be maltreated.
The most common sanctions are dismissal or being sidelined at work. This was the experience of Xiao Weibi, editor of the magazine Tong Zhou Gong Jin, who was sacked in September for carrying an interview with a former communist party leader in Quangdong, who backed political reform. Five of the six members of the magazine’s advisory committee resigned in protest. Wang Guangze, of the bi-weekly Ershiyi shiji jingji baodao, was sidelined by the newspaper on 23 November, after returning from a visit to the United States.
Defamation cases and physical attacks are a new means of applying pressure favoured by local authorities and private companies. Dozens of journalists have been brought before the courts or received visits from henchmen when they show too much interest in investigating fraud in a country that is riddled with corruption.
Press freedom’s number one enemy is however the Publicity Department, which is under the direct control of the communist party central committee. Unable to censor everything, it regularly orders journalists not to write about the more sensitive political and social issues. It is also responsible for ensuring silence on the major taboo subjects. Fifteen years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, it is still forbidden to use the term "4 June" in the press or online. Censors have their fingers permanently on the off switch ready to cut off foreign television broadcasts. At any mention of the event, or indeed many other subjects, screens are blacked out in hotel rooms and homes of foreign residents - the only ones to have legal access to TV channels such as CNN or BBC. Numerous events attracted censorship last year and included pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, the serial killer Ma Jiajue, rioting between Han Chinese and Muslims in Henan Province, strikes in the north-east and so on...
The Publicity Department also aims to keep dissident and other intellectual critics out of the press through a blacklist. In November, it ordered the official media not to publish articles from six reformist political commentators, particularly Jiao Guobiao, who in March posted an online tract in which he said, "The Propaganda Ministry has become a bastion of stupidity and of China’s most retrograde forces (...) If it is allowed to do damage with impunity, it will delay the progress of Chinese political culture and completely discredit millions of Chinese intellectuals. That is why one should rise up against the Propaganda Ministry and attack it".
With three years to go to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese authorities have not always kept their promise to allow foreign journalists to work freely. As well as blocking dozens of foreign news site, public security closely watches foreign correspondents and has no hesitation in arresting, threatening or striking those who violate the sacrosanct "Guide for correspondents working in China". In August, journalists working for British daily The Guardian and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat were arrested for breaching Article 15 of the guide that bans conducting interviews without prior authorisation. In February, police just outside Beijing arrested a crew from French TV channel France 2 for filming poultry immunisations during the bird flu epidemic. Before releasing them, police forced them to sign a paper in which they acknowledged they had been "filming secretly". Police beat up foreign press photographers covering a football match in August.
The Beijing authorities have also attempted to get the Hong Kong media to fall into step with the rest of China. Since October, the Chinese national anthem has been played for every news bulletin. Threats against three well known radio presenters, with links to the democratic opposition, forced them to resign at the start of the year.
Despite everything, the press has grown bolder in challenging officials about social issues and disasters such as the death of 166 miners in Shaanxi Province in November. "Why are the unions struck dumb when there are accidents in the mines?" asked a headline in the daily Dahe Bao in Henan Province.
Courageous editors have been urging their reporters to shake off their fears. Before his arrest, Cheng Yizhong rallied his staff with the following remarks: "Our work has nothing of the commonplace about it. Our cause is to move heaven and earth (...) It is a steep road to the pinnacle of the Chinese press. Our ambition, our extraordinary idealism clashes with the ugliness and dirtiness of social reality." But fear stalked the profession again after the conviction on 20 October for "divulging state secrets" of Zhao Yan, who worked with the US daily, the New York Times, previously a respected journalist on the weekly Reform in China. He risks the death penalty.
17 journalists were arrested
65 media censored
3 repressive laws passed
"China denied freedom of expression"
Former university professor Liu Xiaobo has one unshakeable view: China’s press has to turn itself into a counter-balance to the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party. It is his belief in this universal principle that fuels his tireless struggle, his calls for the release of imprisoned journalists and dissidents and his posting of articles online, in Hong Kong newspapers and in Chinese newspapers abroad. He was the 2004 laureate of the Reporters Without Borders and Fondation de France press freedom prize.
Even though China’s communist powers are shifting, at least in their public statements, from rejecting to recognising human rights, China’s human rights record cannot give rise to any optimism. Especially where press freedom in concerned, China remains a police state that holds a media monopoly and keeps a tight rein on public opinion.
China is denied freedom of expression, does not allow political divergence and bans all media independence. Its political progress lags well behind its economic development and evolving attitudes. The country is caught between two extremes, not only that of wealth and poverty but also between its politics and its economy. It is in a dangerous state that is worsening daily. It is a situation on which Chinese people themselves must reflect but which also demands the attention of the international community.
Faced with the complexities of modern international relations and China’s fast growing economy, some politicians in western countries - both cradle and defenders of freedom - have abandoned their principles for the pursuit of profit. At a time when, awed by the scale of the Chinese market and the lure of profit, they forget China’s disastrous human rights situation, Reporters Without Borders fights tirelessly for the ideal of universal justice that is the defence of press freedom. Through your actions, you have shown yourselves worthy of your name, in your belief that press freedom has no borders and that its defence and the fight against the notion of ’an offence of opinion’ have no borders either.
You have never stopped caring about Chinese prisoners of conscience. You have encouraged Chinese people who dare to speak the truth in the face of a dictatorial power.
In the official Chinese media, friends who have dared speak out have been sentenced by the Communist power. But thanks to the globalisation of the news and the Internet they have won the support, praise and blessing of civil society and international opinion. The prize that I receive today, even if awarded to me personally, is more particularly a prize awarded to the cause of press freedom in China.
China’s freedom has to be the fruit of the efforts of Chinese people themselves but it cannot happen without the continued support of international justice. To finish, I would like to stress this: Whoever wants to fight for freedom under a terror regime, must first speak out publicly in order to conquer his inner terror. You must never turn yourself into a dumb subject, only capable of submitting to force but become a citizen knowing how to express himself independently. Faced with a strong power that forbids freedom, it is essential to become a free man, so as to speak and to act.
Beijing, November 2004