Reporters Without Borders today condemned the Chinese government’s decision, announced by the official news agency Xinhua yesterday, to ban judges from talking to the press, as well as the increasing tendency for state agencies to say only their spokesperson is authorised to talk to journalists.
"It is hard to see how gagging judges will increase the transparency of the judicial system, as Xinhua claims," Reporters Without Borders said. "The government is simply trying to give itself a new tool for controlling news and information inside and outside the country. The increase in press freedom violations less than two years before the start of the Beijing Olympic Games raises serious questions about the Chinese government’s good faith."
In yesterday’s announcement, Xinhua said judges would be subject to "severe sanctions" if they violated the ban on talking directly to journalists. Communication with the media would henceforth be handled by the court spokesperson, who would also have the power to ban other judicial officials from answering journalists’ questions, Xinhua said.
Similar measures for lawyers were already announced in May. They were told in effect that they would be subject to sanctions by their bar association if they gave journalists, especially foreign correspondents, information about sensitive issues such as the cases of political prisoners.
Journalists working for the foreign news media are also affected by these restrictions. They are losing access to significant sources of information within the courts.
By appointing spokespersons - a practice also seen in other state entities - the authorities are trying to get full control over the news and information published in the Chinese press. A few days ago, the authorities announced a decision to consolidate Xinhua’s monopoly over the circulation of news in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and, in theory, Taiwan.
The three-year prison sentence recently imposed on New York Times researcher Zhao Yan and the five-year one given to Ching Cheong, the correspondent of the Singapore-based Straits Times daily, are also part of this drive to control the news two years before some 20,000 journalists from throughout the world arrive in Beijing to cover the Olympics.