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In Depth: Censorship

Media Censorship in China and the legacy of Sun Zhigang:
Is there always retribution for investigative reporting?

By Christopher Allen

Media censorship in China is complex, with few hard and fast rules. Although in recent decades the rules on reporting entertainment and lifestyle news have relaxed, political reporting is still very controlled. Direct criticism of the Party or Party leaders is forbidden, and memos are often distributed banning reporting on certain issues as and when they arise. For example, news on public health scares, such as SARS in 2003 and the early years of the AIDS epidemic, is often restricted. All media are at least part-owned by the government, and editors have to make sure that reports are "socially responsible," which usually means that they do not provoke anti-government feelings.
Man looking into glass display to read paper

Man reads the day's newspaper displayed behind glass, Beijing.

Many in China's communist government fear that negative reporting may stir up opposition, which would affect the stability they believe is needed for economic growth. Those in this camp tend to believe that the media should remain a publicity tool to promote the Party's message. Critics believe that media control is a tool to keep the Communist Party in power and to preserve the status quo of the ruling elites. Others, both in government and in newspaper offices, would like the media to be a tool of the public -- a watchdog that reports on wrongdoings by political leaders and thereby keeps them in check. The result is a wide variety of publications. Some newspapers, such as the People's Daily, are still very conservative, while others, such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend, push the boundaries of what can be reported under more liberal editorial leadership.

These days, increasing reliance on advertising revenue is driving the development of press freedom, and newspapers and magazines are finding that groundbreaking political reporting sells better than propaganda. In spite of repeated crackdowns on publications that push the envelope, in the long term the market, not the Party, may determine what fills the column inches.

Punishments for publications that anger the government vary. Sometimes editors are simply fired, as was Li Datong, editor of the Freezing Point, a supplement of China Youth Daily, after publishing an article criticizing high school history text books for distorting the truth. Sometimes, troublesome publications are investigated in the hope of turning up some dirt on the staff, who can then be punished more severely.

This kind of punitive fishing expedition is exactly what happened when one newspaper reported and commented on the now-famous "Sun Zhigang Case".

In April 2003 the Southern Metropolitan Daily, based in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), reported on the suspicious death in police custody of a young fashion designer named Sun Zhigang. Sun, a university graduate from Hubei who had recently arrived in Guangzhou to work at a clothing company, was arrested under "detention and transfer" laws which allowed police to detain non-local beggars and vagrants before sending them back to their hometowns. As well as investigating Sun's mysterious death, the newspaper wrote at least one editorial that raised pointed questions about whether the police had the right to arrest Sun in the first place (as he was neither a beggar nor a vagrant) and the brutality of his death.

After news of Sun's death was first published, anger about the incident quickly spread around China via the country's popular BBS (Bulletin Board System) internet forums. The public outcry was enormous, ultimately resulting in abolition of the detention and transfer laws. Twelve people were convicted for their involvement in Sun's death.

People look at papers fress off the press in a print shop

The printing press crew at the Southern Weekend, Guangzhou.

But things were not so rosy for the newspaper that first broke the story. Shortly after Southern Metropolitan Daily published additional groundbreaking reports -- this time on the SARS crisis -- an investigation was ordered into its finances. This was widely interpreted in media circles as punishment for reporting that had humiliated the governments of Guangdong province and its capital Guangzhou. The investigation found that two editors were guilty of diverting funds from advertising revenues to pay staff bonuses. Although according to media workers in China this is a common practice and usually goes unpunished, the two editors were sentenced to 11 and 13 years imprisonment for fraud, later shortened to 6 and 8 years on appeal. The newspaper's chief editor, Cheng Yizhong, was detained by police for five months before being released, with no charges being filed. He now works for a sports newspaper. The fact that staff members were so harshly punished for a common and relatively minor infraction suggests that the investigation was a witch hunt designed to punish the paper for its aggressive reporting.

Recently, laws have been passed further limiting press freedom. Loopholes used by journalists to report on sensitive cases have been closed. One method previously used by reporters to escape local censorship was to report on problems in other areas. Officials from one area had less power to punish or censor reports by newspapers from other regions. However, in 2005, laws came into effect banning "extra-territorial" reporting. The Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post quoted one media studies professor as saying that "[non-local] reporting has been the best hope for liberalising the news media." That hope is now gone.

Another technique used by journalists was to report quickly on breaking stories before the authorities had the chance to classify the subject as out-of-bounds. But in 2006 laws were drafted which would allow the authorities to impose fines on media organisations that reported on breaking stories without prior approval. Reports on "natural disasters, accidents, public health incidents, and public safety disturbances deemed misleading or harmful to social order" could all risk fines.

These recent developments have caused many people to worry that press freedom in China, after some years of relaxation, is again being reined in. The battle between the market's demand for groundbreaking reporting and the government's desire to mold the media in its own image looks set to continue.

Read the following Southern Metropolitan Daily editorial on the circumstances surrounding Sun's death for an example of the sort of reporting that is not only punished but is not permitted in China.

Christopher Allen is a researcher on the China from the Inside series and currently lives in China.


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