Censorship in China: A Step Backwards

By in Beijing

Beijing, never a big fan of the freedom of press, is currently seeking to tie the media's hands even further. Under a new law -- unscrupulous local authorities would be given the legal power to prosecute the media for reporting on disasters.

A Chinese newspaper: Beijing doesn't think much of freedom of the press.
AFP

A Chinese newspaper: Beijing doesn't think much of freedom of the press.

China's Communist Party thinks about as highly of the freedom of the press as Pope Benedict XVI does about birth control. Beijing's functionaries are constantly coming up with creative new ways of controlling it. As part of its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, China promised it would open up more, but two years ahead of the games, Beijing is still light years away from transparency.

The latest devolution in this unseemly process is a draft law from the "Legislative Office under the State Council," that is being discussed this week by Chinese lawmakers in the National People's Congress, the Communist Party's pseudo parliament in Beijing. The bill stipulates that the press may not report on emergency situations or rescue operations without official consent from the authorities. At the same time, however, the draft legislation instructs authorities to inform the public, but they should also "conduct management work over the media's related reports."

The new regulations are part of a law for coping with "sudden events," legislation for states of emergency that has been debated in China over the course of two years. The legislation is intended to precisely structure the reponsibilities and competencies of different authorities during states of emergency. Among other things, it would stipulate when a state of emergency is to be declared and at which point the armed forces may be deployed. With its legislation, the Communist Party is seeking to codify regulations for dealing with emergencies -- decisions which up until now have often been made informally.

Whether it be floods, earthquakes, epidemics, plane crashes, mining accidents or protests, if it were up to the officials, the Chinese people would soon only be informed about things the authorities wanted them to know. Indeed, the legislation would ban any real reporting -- be it eyewitness accounts or research on the authorities' crisis management -- without the prior blessing of the government. According to the draft, newspapers that violate the law could be subjected to fines of up to 100,000 yuan (€10,000).

Of course, there's nothing new about the efforts of the Communist Party to muzzle the Chinese media. Even today, the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus continues to temporarily or permanently shut down newspapers or fire editors. Still, the draft law has been the subject of fierce criticism amongst the Chinese public. "News should be free. I am absolutely against this draft law," one Internet user complained. The Catonese Southern Metropolis News -- which is known for its courageous features and is banned from Beijing newsstands -- lamented the draft as a "step backwards" and anticipated "absurd" consequences if it were passed.

The paper also reminded its readers about the SARS epidemic, when two senior Chinese officials were removed from their positions because they lied to the public about the number of people infected with the illness. As a result of the scandal, Beijing fell into a major crisis when huge cross-sections of the Chinese population lost faith in the Chinese government. Since that incident, the paper wrote, few doubt that "public transparency ... plays an important role in unanticipated events."

Under the new law, cautioned the Southern Metropolis News, independent media reporting on disasters like severe mining accidents could be suppressed. Indeed, there will always be functionaries in bed with mining companies and have a vested interest in hiding these accidents out of fear of having to report them to their superiors in Beijing. "According to the regulations in this draft law, local governments and the individuals seeking to cover things up, will have the ability to punish the media. Is that not absurd?" the paper asked.

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