By Elaine Dunn
“Groundbreaking…The most authoritative account of the Great Famine…One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.” ―Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books
That is just one of many glowing reviews of “Tombstone” by Yang Jisheng, a retired reporter for Xinhua News, the Chinese state news agency. “Tombstone” was published in November 2013 and regarded as one of the best insider’s account of the worst Mao-era missteps that caused approximately 36 million Chinese die of starvation. Yet, the book was banned in China and the author was forbidden to travel to Harvard University to receive the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism last month.
Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, China Insight (February 2015, p. 11) published a piece about press freedom in Hong Kong and China. It highlighted the plight of journalists in Hong Kong leading up to and during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in fall 2014. It also reported how both Hong Kong and China ranked in the World Press Freedom Index.
Where does press freedom stand one year later? In an era where infinite amount of information is posted online continuously and new channels of content delivery are growing, could press freedom be improving? Apparently, not in China, Hong Kong and Macau, where the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) China Press Freedom Report said press freedom had deteriorated further in 2015. Worst yet, it looks like 2016 does not bode well at all either.
In February 2016, President Xi JinPing toured the offices of the three leading state media organizations to remind them their duty is to serve the [Communist] Party, stating the media should identify with the party’s agenda. In fact, he declared the media be “surnamed ‘Party’ (必须姓党).”
What he meant by that was there will be more restrictions on the media, from news content to advertising to entertainment. To the international press corps, that indicated many topics would be off limits, topics such as negative reporting of China’s leaders, its economy, the Tibetan and Uigher issues, and terrorist activities. Worst yet, for foreign companies and Sino-foreign joint ventures involved in online publishing, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that as of March 10, they must seek prior approval from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Furthermore, online content and IP addresses have to be kept for 60 days and provided to authorities in the case of investigations.
Also in February, a prominent blogger and successful real estate tycoon had his Sina and Weibo accounts shut down after he posted critical comments about Xi’s media tour, saying the media organizations’ reporting were supposed to represent the people (whose taxes paid their salaries), not the Party. Staff from Southern Metropolis Newspaper were reprimanded and its editor fired for the same reason. By February 26, the International Federation of Journalists March bulletin reported:
“… the Cyber Space Office said that in cooperation with other departments, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology Bureau, that more than 100 websites were shut down and more 2000 online rumours about public policy, transport and food security were deleted. In addition, more than 580 social media accounts were shut down on accusations they violated from online service regulations, seriously damaging public interest. Among the 580 accounts shut down, three of the accounts were named and accused of repeatedly disseminating fake information about politics and public affairs. At least 7 bloggers were named, including media workers, accused on repeatedly posting against the principles of the Chinese Constitution.”
Offenders will be severely punished! No lie.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that three investigative journalists were arrested in January in the northwestern Gansu Province. They had written unflattering articles about the city and its officials. The journalists are now facing charges related to “extortion.”
During this past Lunar New Year’s “Fishball Revolution” in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, journalists were attacked for reporting on the police closing down unlicensed fishball snack stands. In late February, owners and media workers of a Hong Kong publisher and bookseller who had been missing since late 2015, mysteriously turned up in Hong Kong and asked the police to stop treating them as “missing persons.” They then gave very public “confessions” that they had returned to mainland China voluntarily to help with government investigations. However, public sentiment is that they had been held in China because of the books they publish and sell - “salacious” titles about Chinese leaders and the elite - and for operating an “illegal business” in the mainland. No matter that one of the accused was a British citizen and another, a Swedish citizen, the Chinese authorities maintained that since they were Chinese at birth, this would be an “internal affair.”*
Caixin Media’s March 3 English-language piece stating the media should be ‘free to give their opinions to the Communist Party’s leaders,” was removed by the authorities. Caixin promptly reported the censorship
On March 15, another journalist (who writes a regular column for Tencent Online) has gone missing after he was detained on a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong/ He was accused of writing and posting a letter online calling for President Xi’s resignation. No one has been able to reach the journalist and Chinese law enforcement has refused to comment.
During two high-level government meetings in Beijing last month, VPNs (virtual private networks) that bypass China’s Great Firewall and online censorship were disrupted or blocked. According to an organization that monitors online censorship in China, the Great Firewall has blocked access to more than 100 top websites around the world, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Youtube.
Foreign journalists have long been barred from covering “action” sites because of “paperwork” bureaucracy, or their press cards may be withdrawn and/or may not be renewed. Worst yet, they may be detained on charges of espionage. And it is no secret that many correspondents have had their personal belongings (such as books, maps and DVDs, especially those pertaining to the status of Taiwan) confiscated as they leave China.
Even without outright censorship, press freedom can decline with self-censorship, which is what is happening in Hong Kong. However, with election of new leadership coming up in 2017, expectations are there will be even tighter media control from the mainland, which is when objective investigative reporting is most necessary.
According to the IFJ, in Hong Kong and China, "Propaganda, censorship, surveillance, intimidation, detention, brutality and attacks and televised 'confessions' have become go-to tools for the government as they tighten their grip on the media and the press in 2015."
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said, “It seems it’s no longer enough for Chinese authorities to erase all trace of criticism — it now seems bent on erasing all trace of its critics, too.”
China’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index now stands at 176 out of 180 countries. Hong Kong is at 70. (The U.S. ranks 49 and, again, Finland is at the top of the list.)
It is a shame that roughly 25 percent of the world’s population is denied good and transparent news coverage. This May 3, annual World Press Freedom Day, take time to reflect on the state of press freedom and support media and journalists who struggle to provide decent reporting against increasingly hostile conditions.
* One of the booksellers returned to Hong Kong from the mainland March 24 reiterating he went to China of his own volition. He also told the media he would never run a bookstore again.