Assault on free speech

China has launched a massive campaign to stifle news of unrest in rural China – the country’s most pressing domestic issue – a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. Fearing that news of land disputes and other civil discontent could fuel a threat to its authority, the Government has launched one of the biggest media crackdowns since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.

‘News of mass incidents cannot be reported,’ said Li Datong, former chief editor of a weekly supplement to the Government-controlled China Youth Daily, who was removed from his post earlier this year after angering officials from the Central Propaganda Department.

‘Mass incidents’ is the term the Chinese Government uses to describe demonstrations, riots and groups petitioning the Government. In January 2006 the Ministry of Public Security announced that there were 87,000 such incidents in 2005 – a 6.6 per cent increase over the previous year. Protests continue to mount over corruption, taxes and environmental degradation caused by China’s breakneck economic development.

But some of the most highly charged disputes have occurred over Government seizure of farmland for construction of factories, power plants, shopping malls, roads and apartment complexes. The crackdowns on some of these protests have claimed the lives of Chinese citizens.

Until recently journalists from outside the local area were providing some in-depth reporting on local issues. Those who moved fast enough could file at least a few relatively uncensored reports before the central authorities shut down nationwide coverage. Now the authorities have banned this reporting practice – known as yidi baodao, or cross-territorial reporting. Reporters say that the ban, while applied unevenly, has had a profound impact. The decree has compelled editors to rein in some of their strongest investigative reporters and empowered local officials to harass, intimidate and block access to journalists once beyond the censor’s grasp.

Adding to the clampdown, the Government issued a fresh set of web restrictions in September 2005. Banned content now includes material that ‘illegally incites’ gatherings or demonstrations, or is distributed in the name of ‘illegal civil organizations.’

Nevertheless, technology in the hands of ordinary Chinese citizens continues to make the suppression of protest news difficult. Chinese journalists say that the internet is still by far the greatest source of such information. Though the postings are quickly removed, reports of land disputes and other protests can be found online for those willing to search. Protesters use cellphones, text messages and digital video to document events and to alert the media – their only means to communicate with central authorities.

With the traditional press tightly controlled, the job of reporting on rural protests and mass disturbances has been taken up increasingly by members of China’s emergent civil society – activists, lawyers, and intellectuals – who work outside the censorship machine to feed such information into the public debate. ‘Farmers want to use the media but the media can’t report their issues. Often, with the help of scholars and lawyers, the news comes out in overseas websites,’ said Beijing-based legal scholar Li Baiguang, who has travelled the country educating farmers on their rights to legal redress. It remains a risky business.

*Kristin Jones* works for the Asia programme of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

New Internationalist issue 392 magazine cover This article is from the August 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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