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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 15:36 GMT
China slow to loosen media muzzle

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

Having breathed new life into China's press, Sars now looks as if it is helping stifle it again.

The government was shamed by last year's epidemic into unleashing the media to help spread public awareness of the disease and chase up officials who had been slow to act.

In the process it opened up a whole new landscape of fresh fields of enquiry for an eager young army of Chinese reporters who have been trained in Western journalism but never allowed to use their skills to the full.

Taxi driver reading Southern Metropolis Newspaper
One paper's Sars coverage highlights press limits
In recent days, however, the Communist Party appears to have reverted to its old preference for a muzzle and chain, in order to make it clear that whatever else may have changed in China, there is still only one master when it comes to deciding how to feed politically sensitive information to the masses.

The editor of a newspaper in the southern province of Guangdong which jumped the official gun by revealing the resurgence of Sars was subsequently detained and questioned by police. The journalist who wrote the story was also said to be under investigation - she was described as being "on holiday".

Reports that the Southern Metropolis Newspaper was in trouble for publishing the news without official permission were dismissed by the state-run China Daily on Wednesday as "groundless". The Beijing paper quoted Guangdong officials as insisting that the questioning was in connection with bribery allegations.

But human rights groups outside China dismiss the corruption charge as a pretext to try to silence the provincial newspaper, which came under political pressure last year when it reported the beating to death of a young man in police custody. The case later led to a government review of detention procedures for migrants.

"It's true that the new top leadership softened policies towards the press last year, mainly because it was sensitive about Sars and was under pressure from the World Health Organisation," says Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia Pacific desk at the Paris-based press monitoring group, Reporters Without Borders.
The media market is getting a lot more open

"The judicial system is also more open. But the propaganda and public security bureaux are still from the old school. They don't change."

Party rules

China has 750,000 journalists, publishes 25,000 newspapers and magazines, and broadcasts news to the world's largest domestic audience on 12, 000 radio and television stations.

But despite the spectacular growth of a capitalist-style economy and consumer society in recent years, not one of China's news outlets is free to report or comment on sensitive political issues without guidance from the Communist Party.

There is now an unprecedented amount of investigative reporting and criticism of the government over things like corruption, even in mainstream media
Lin Shaowen, China Radio International

Jiang Zemin, who stepped down as China's president last year but still retains influence, spelled out the old concept of press freedom when he said the mass media must "accurately and vividly reflect and instil the Party's political standpoint, principles and policies into news stories, newsletters, commentaries, photos, headlines and layout".

Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, adopted a new approach, giving orders to regional authorities to allow journalists to report even "negative" events without undue delay.

China's extensive coverage of the war in Iraq was one result of the new press policies.

The past year has also seen a big growth in the number of areas that can be written about more freely than ever before, say local journalists.

"There is now an unprecedented amount of investigative reporting and criticism of the government over things like corruption, even in mainstream media like Xinhua and CCTV" said Lin Shaowen of China Radio International.

But journalists admit that the exposure of such cases would not be permissible if they involved senior government leaders.

The problem is not so much to do with the top leaders being unwilling to face exposure as with self-censorship by journalists and excessive zeal by local authorities, according to one reporter who preferred to remain anonymous. Provincial officials often have their own scores to settle and choose to ignore the more liberal instructions coming these days from Beijing, he said.

They're enjoying a fairly liberal environment as long as they don't cross certain sensitive ideological lines
Tom Gorman, Hong Kong publisher

"I have heard the reports of another crackdown in the south," he said. "But if they are true I don't think it is the result of a central mandate. It is the fault of individuals who misjudge the government's intentions".

Jan Kot, a Hong Kong Chinese freelance journalist working in Shanghai for various mainland outlets, says she is aware of the fact that she has to be careful sometimes.

"My principle is not to touch anything political. I do harmless things like business, social profiles and arts".

While it retains editorial control, the government is keen for the press to support itself financially. It recently announced the closure of hundreds of state-funded newspapers and periodicals which depended for their readership almost entirely on government departments and other official units that were forced to subscribe.

As the market becomes more open there will be a growing need to be more competitive and find more interesting stories, says Tom Gorman, chairman of CCI Asia Pacific, a Hong Kong-based company which publishes Chinese language magazines for the mainland market.

"Independent media groups are being encouraged to form and a lot of new magazines are being published. They're enjoying a fairly liberal environment as long as they don't cross certain sensitive ideological lines - but these are in fact far fewer and less sensitive than they used to be," he said.

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