167 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 9.596.960 sq. km.
Head of state: Hu Jintao, since March 2003
Many media have been trying to shake off the grip of the propaganda department and the local authorities but the communist party is not about to abandon this “strategic” sector. In the face of a burgeoning blogosphere, the government has chosen to play the propaganda card. However, the state of press freedom is much more critical in Tibet and Xinjiang.
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.
Two reporters were arrested for this reason by authorities in Shanxi, central China at the end of 2008. For their part, the political police concentrate their efforts on human rights activists. First dissident Hu Jia then academic Liu Xiaobo 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.
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.
And as the 20th anniversary approaches of the June 1989 pro-democracy movement, all media have had to keep silent about the crackdown that followed. 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 since March 2008 on those who attempt to get out accounts, particularly footage, showing violence by the security forces. Around a dozen monks and militants for Tibetan culture have been detained, some of them sentenced to life in prison. 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 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.