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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 January 2008, 23:58 GMT
Stories China's media could not write
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

A woman looks at televisions on display in Wuhan, central China
China has some of the tightest media restrictions in the world
When journalists at China's national broadcaster CCTV log on, one of the first things that pops up on screen is a notice about what not to report.

These notices are often short and seldom say who has authorised them, but they all contain strict instructions about how to report a story.

Journalists were recently warned off a health scandal, told how to report the death of Benazir Bhutto and had to steer clear of a Hollywood film story.

Censorship has been an everyday feature of news reporting in China for as long as the Chinese Communist Party has been in power.

But this wide range of so-called sensitive stories shows that, in China, any story on any subject at any time can still fall foul of the censor's red pen.

No explanation

As 2007 came to a close, it was three very different stories that received particular attention from censors working at China Central Television (CCTV).

Newspaper featuring Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao speaking to the NPC
The media rarely prints criticism of the country or the government

On 19 December, journalists received a notice banning them from carrying reports about the death of a pregnant migrant worker.

The news had previously been widely reported in the Chinese media.

The saga began when the woman was rushed to a Beijing hospital with what her husband said was a simple cold.

But doctors said she was suffering from pneumonia and needed an emergency caesarean.

Her husband, believing the hospital wanted to charge him for an expensive and unnecessary operation, refused. Three hours later his wife was dead.

The terse notice banning CCTV journalists from reporting this story did not say why it was sensitive, but health is a hot topic for ordinary Chinese people.

There are all kinds of bans and missives against all kinds of stories for different reasons
David Bandurski

Many suspect doctors prescribe expensive drugs and order unnecessary tests and treatment to boost their salaries.

Two days later, the CCTV censors were worried about another story - reports that China had banned some Hollywood films from Chinese cinemas.

Censors decided this story could not be reported at all.

Again, the notice did not say why, but there has been trade friction between China and the US for some time.

Perhaps the government did not want to add to the tension by talking about another potential trade dispute between the two sides.

'Avoid drawing fire'

The third story that caused problems was the death of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto two days after Christmas.

Benazir Bhutto, photographed at the rally shortly before her assassination on 27 December 2007
Journalists could not link Ms Bhutto's death to Pakistan's politics

China and Pakistan are close allies, and the government presumably did not want to cause a friend unnecessary trouble.

Of course, it would have been hard to simply ignore the assassination, so on 28 December CCTV journalists received explicit instructions on how to report the killing.

Reporters were told to stick to the facts and not connect the incident with Pakistan's internal turmoil or mention the possibility of terrorism.

"Avoid drawing fire against ourselves. Avoid being drawn into Pakistan's internal contradictions," the notice read.

And this time journalists were told exactly who had authorised this order - the party's Central Propaganda Department.

These three stories are just the tip of the iceberg, according to David Bandurski, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which monitors the media in China.

"There are all kinds of bans and missives against all kinds of stories for different reasons," he says.

The forces that oppose democracy, the rule of law and particularly freedom of speech are powerful
Prof Zhan Jiang

Certain subjects are always out of bounds in China, such as speculation about China's national leaders.

Other issues, such as health, education and inflation, are closely monitored because they are potentially controversial.

CCTV journalists were recently told to follow the lead of Xinhua, China's national news agency, when writing reports about fuel price rises.

Sometimes even innocent stories can become sensitive, such as a recent debate about digital TV, because it touched on the issue of consumer rights.

'Wriggle room'

Despite the obstacles, Mr Bandurski says many Chinese journalists are keen to push the boundaries of what is allowed.

"The media is becoming savvy about which stories are completely taboo and which stories have some wriggle room, even for a short time," he says.

The media was not always so strictly controlled in China.

Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing's China Youth University for Political Science, says there was more freedom to report political issues in the 1980s.

But that relatively relaxed period came to an abrupt end in 1989 with the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters.

The professor is not optimistic that things will improve in the short term for Chinese journalists.

"On one hand, (Chinese President) Hu Jintao suggests goals to aim for, such as democracy and the rule of law," says Mr Zhan.

"But, on the other hand, the forces that oppose democracy, the rule of law and particularly freedom of speech are powerful."

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