Pressure on the Press

Jonathan Ansfield reports in the Newsweek:

They had one amateur video, six peasants’ corpses and more than 10 eyewitnesses to the siege a day before. But on June 12, after Beijing News journalists were first at the scene where freelance thugs brutally attacked and killed village farmers in Hebei province, no one knew how their exclusive coverage would go over with the censors. That’s because just recently, journalists tell NEWSWEEK, the Communist Party handed down a stern directive aimed at curbing the kind of long-distance investigative reporting that the Beijing News does best. In an April speech elaborating upon the prescriptions, known as Document 16, propaganda czar Liu Yunshan fingered The Beijing News–well as one of its sister papers in Guang-zhou–as too independent for their own good. ” ‘The South has a newspaper that disgusts a lot of officials in the North’,” one high-placed party journalist quoted Liu saying, “and the North has a paper that disgusts a lot of officials in the South’.” In fact, so many petty cadres have traveled to the capital to complain about The Beijing News, says one of its editors, “that now the pressure on us is very heavy.”

The question, however, is whether such pressure really can halt the presses anymore. China is in the midst of its biggest media crackdown since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Several reporters and editors have been either arrested or sacked recently, including Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong citizen and veteran journalist of The Straits Times of Singapore, whose wife later claimed had helped Beijing formulate Taiwan policy. He’s the second employee of a foreign news organization to be arrested, an extremely rare occurrence, since the clampdown began (the first was a Chinese journalist working for The New York Times). But none of that prevented The Beijing News from breaking news of the free-for-all in Hebei, in which about 200 young toughs assaulted farmers resisting the seizure of their land by a state power company. The story ran two days later–and almost immediately afterward, the top two officials in the area, Dingzhou City, were sacked. “No party document can make a long-term impact anymore,” says the editor. “Because… in the long term they [the leadership] still need a watchdog press.”

China’s leaders don’t always agree. Ever since a Communist Party conclave in Beijing last September, where he became undisputed leader, Chinese President Hu Jintao has seemed bent on pre-empting any notion that his government is headed for a Gorbachev-style glasnost. Instead, he has “gone back to the Mao school of top-down controls,” says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism school. But given the intense competition for readers in print and on Web sites, the media are like “a lot of ducks crowding around a pond full of fish,” says Xiao. “Killing a few ducks may chill the crowd for a while, but eventually the rest of the ducks will jump in.”

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