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Traditional Media - Press Freedom and Censorship


All newspapers, TV and radio stations are owned by the government (with the official party outfits being Xinhua, CCTV and China National Radio respectively), which constrains the availability of information in China. There has been a growing proliferation of commercial magazines and media in recent years, but these tend to focus on entertainment, sports and lifestyle topics.

Taboo Topics: Chinese writers, journalists and broadcasters can cover a much broader range of subjects than in the past, as long as they refrain from a number of off-limit topics including:

• criticism of the government and the Communist Party
• calls for more democracy, free elections or a multi-party state
• Independence for Tibet or Xinjiang
• Taiwan Independence
• The banned Falun Gong spiritual movement
• The 1989 Tiananmen incident.

The Communist Propaganda department often issues guidelines to editors on the stance to take whenever new issues arise.[1] Though the government doesn’t monitor every media outlet especially given the proliferation of commercial magazines and media in recent years, there is no need to, as editors and journalists, even those working for commercial media, generally know which lines not to cross, effectively practicing a kind of self-censorship. Of course there are many journalists who are eager to push the boundaries, and who are learning which stories may have some wiggle room.

Writers and journalists who cover the more taboo topics as listed above may end up being harassed or imprisoned, with the charge usually being that of endangering state security by inciting subversion or separatism. It is estimated that around 4000 prisoners are serving sentences for such crimes. The government’s statistics indicate that 742 people were arrested for “endangering state security” in 2007, the highest number since 1999.[2] According to the U.K. paper The Independent, 180 foreign press correspondents in China were arrested or harassed in 2007.[3] The journalist group Reporters Without Borders estimates that 33 journalists and 51 bloggers and cyber-dissidents are in Chinese jails at the beginning of 2008.[4]

Historically, censorship and control of the media in China has not always been uniformly strict. Journalism professor Zhan Jiang of Beijing’s China Youth University for Political Science says that there was more leeway to report on political issues in the 1980s, but that freedom evaporated after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident.[5] Most recently, the Chinese government also relaxed media controls and allowed more liberal reporting right after the Sichuan earthquake, but quickly tightened the reins again when journalists started to move from more positive stories of government leaders’ contributions to questioning the shoddy construction of schools and covering the angry protests of the parents who had lost children.

1 Michael Bristow, “Stories China’s media could not write,” BBC News, January 6, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7171648.stm (accessed 1/9/08).

2 Peter Ford, “Amid human rights protests a look at China’s record,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0410/p04s01-woap.html (accesed 7/24/08).

3 Simon Usborne, “China: In Numbers,” The Independent, May 10, 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-in-numbers-823666.html (accessed 7/24/08).

4 “Group says China failing on media freedom promises,” Reuters, February 13, 2008, http://uk.reuters.com/article/entertainmentNews/idUKPEK28404420080213 (accessed 7/24/08).

5 Bristow, “Stories.”