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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 12:42 GMT
China's mixed media messages
By Peter Feuilherade
BBC Monitoring

Newspaper featuring Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao speaking to the NPC
Domestic media are still subject to many restrictions

Foreign journalists covering China's annual parliament session are being allowed for the first time to interview lawmakers and political advisers directly.

Chinese official media are touting this as a sign of the country's growing transparency to the world's press ahead of next year's Olympic Games.

China's domestic media, by contrast, face growing censorship and restrictions.

The government is reasserting control over journalists who have become less compliant.

Taiwan's Central News Agency earlier this week reported that the island's Apple Daily newspaper had been denied access to cover the Beijing sessions, prompting a Taiwanese minister to say China was "not serious" about media liberalisation.

The BBC's Chinese Service has also been denied access to cover the NPC from Beijing. It was the first time this had happened in over a decade, and was officially because "there was a limit to the number of foreign reporters allowed".

In general, however, international media organisations have welcomed the relaxation of reporting rules for foreign journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics as a positive development.

There are now just over 600 resident foreign journalists in China, and every year between 3,000 to 5,000 journalists from abroad visit on assignment.

Tens of thousands are expected to report from China during the Olympics.

However, Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) said the foreign ministry had not given provincial officials enough information about the changes.

There had also been at least five cases of correspondents being prevented from meeting dissidents.

The authorities have stepped up their controls over the media that domestic audiences are permitted to access

The 2008 Olympics is an important factor that has promoted the introduction of the new rules.

But socio-economic changes over the past two decades are also pushing China to become more transparent, according to Yu Guoming of the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, in remarks cited by China's official news agency Xinhua.

The relaxed rules for the foreign media are due to expire in October 2008.

But some observers of China believe it would be hard to reverse the trend of openness.

Important year

While foreign journalists enjoy greater access, the Chinese authorities have stepped up their controls over the media that domestic audiences are permitted to access.

The Central Propaganda Department in February banned news reporting on 20 specific issues, with the aim of promoting "a conducive atmosphere" for the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress later this year.

From February 2007, stricter curbs have been in force on what domestic TV stations can screen. China's broadcast regulator said only "ethically inspiring" programmes should be shown in prime time.

Beijing 2008
The Olympic Games will bring thousands of journalists to China

Pre-censorship has been imposed on the media when covering sensitive political anniversaries, such as those relating to the Cultural Revolution.

Other curbs on what domestic TV audiences can watch include a crackdown on "vulgar reality shows", and a prime-time ban on foreign cartoons.

China also continues to block access to websites it regards as subversive, and to jam foreign radio broadcasts, including the BBC World Service in Mandarin.

The restrictions imposed on domestic broadcasters, press and websites come during an important year for China's leadership.

This week's annual parliament session will be followed in the autumn by the CCP five-yearly congress.

This is expected to bring changes to the Politburo, "stacking the political deck with supporters of CCP chief Hu Jintao and providing an early glimpse of the next-generation leadership and Hu's possible successor slated to take power in 2012," commented Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong-based online newspaper.

Whatever wider changes a new generation of leaders brings, analysts believe the CCP will not soon relinquish its tight grip on the media, and especially the news providers.






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