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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 14:06 GMT
Chinese whispers?
The Magazine's review of blogs
By Alan Connor

China: the country of the Great Wall, the biggest army in the world and censorship of the internet. Or is it? Meet the bloggers who are claiming they're free to say what they like.

"BBC makes me sick", begins a post at China Top Blog. The blogger goes on to explain that he cancelled an interview with the Beeb because "BBC often casts your voice into pieces and makes a remix".

Moreover, the blog continues, BBC interviewers are close to monsters:

    "Being interviewed by BBC is no fun, it is a grilling experience. At times, interviewers can get very aggressive.
    Recently over a scandal in the British cabinet, BBC news reader Jonathan asked the Home Secretary: 'Did you threaten to sack him (a junior minister)?',
    the home secretary replied calmly: 'I warned him'.
    Jonathan: 'Did you threaten him!'
    Secretary: 'I warned him'
    Jonathan again Did you threaten him'
    Secretary again: I warned him
    Jonathan again: Did you threaten him?'
    Repeated 9 times, eventually Jonathan shouted: 'You are a coward, aren't you? Why can not you just admit that you threatened him!'

While this is surely a case of Chinese Whispers, you'd hope the Beeb would come across as more even-handed when interviewing members of the public.

Not always. Edwyn Chan's Weblog is among the milder critics, describing the BBC as "annoying" for always asking about freedom of speech when interviewing Chinese citizens.

Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly review of blogs
He goes on to mention Jian Shuo Wang, a blogger who felt misrepresented in a BBC interview and re-iterated the same issues about freedom of speech, adding:

    "As everyone can see, there is not much censorship on this blog and I can talk the topic I choose to talk about."

So how can this be? Is the BBC (gulp) fallible, not to mention Amnesty, PoliticsOnline, openDemocracy and Reporters Sans Frontieres, which named China the winner of the 2005 Internet-Censor World Championship?

Well, the ensuing debate is certainly lively, both in the comments section, on other blogs, and has reached an even wider audience after being flagged up at Harvard's überblog Global Voices Online.

The censorship elephant

The initial spur for all this international attention on China was a recent Chinese Bloggers' Conference which was attended by, among others, "recovering TV reporter-turned-blogger" Rebecca MacKinnon. She describes censorship as a "hitch" and goes on:

    "But this was not the time and place to discuss how to circumvent censorship. Addressing that huge elephant in the room directly would have flagged the gathering as subversive, and would have killed all the good stuff that came out of the meeting."

Like Bill Thompson, this isn't saying "Don't mention the censorship"; it's just acknowledging - like, in fact, the original BBC report - that if freedom of speech is curtailed, it's difficult to talk about it.

Hence the many Chinese bloggers, who we shall not link to here for obvious reasons, who have given slightly-gnomic posts along the lines of "I'm not saying whether there's censorship in China or not - but if there were, I wouldn't want to be the first person to announce it on a world platform".

Losing editorial control

This being the internet, the conversation also involved various members of the community accusing each other of having ulterior business interests, being "trolls", or covertly blogging on behalf of the state.

But overall, it looks as though mutual trust will be regained. And as well as the specific dynamics of talking about China, there's a new phenomenon here of what happens when bloggers are quoted.

Webloggers are in a strange position: they're simultaneously much more visible than their fellow citizens when a mainstream journalist is looking for interviewees, and much more used than their fellow civilians to writing stories themselves, and maintaining full editorial control of their own words.

As Asia Pundit writes, it's standard journalistic practice to use a tiny fraction of your interview, depending on how you're telling your story. The world's first newspaper had probably only hit the streets of Antwerp about ten minutes before a disgruntled Belgian was telling his friends "they quoted me out of context!".

Bloggers - if they're lucky - get to tell the rest of the world.

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