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China relaxes media rules

Politics - 2007-01-20 - One less brick in the wall - Beijing relaxes media controls for the Olympics. A rare piece of good news about news-gathering in China.

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AS PART of its preparations for hosting the Olympic games in 2008, China has been proclaiming a new era of openness. Last week departments of the Communist Party which had previously kept themselves secret published contact details for their spokesmen. This week the central government lifted long-standing curbs on the activities of foreign journalists. Even the ministry of defence, usually taciturn, is said to be preparing to hold news conferences.

China wants to show that its relations with the foreign media are in line with those of other countries that have hosted the games in the past 20 years. It does not want its Olympics marred by the sort of boycotts and tensions that spoilt the 1980 games in Moscow―the only other communist capital to have hosted the event.

The games are of enormous political importance to China. They are designed to show off the country’s economic achievements and to demonstrate its growing pride and confidence. China wants the event to strengthen its ties with the West. It worries that restrictions on foreign media might complicate that task.

The old media rules had changed little, on paper at least, since communist China first allowed Western journalists to open offices in Beijing in the 1970s. For example, if a resident foreign journalist wanted to conduct interviews outside the city where he was based, he had to obtain permission from the relevant provincial government. In recent years most journalists ignored this restriction, and the central government largely turned a blind eye, but local governments did not. A trip to the provinces on a sensitive story could mean a cat-and-mouse game with the local police, who would happily expel the foreigner for “illegal” reporting.

The old rules, though not formally repealed, have been superseded from January 1st by more liberal regulations which remain in force until the games are over. In theory foreign journalists can travel around China pretty much as they please.

And if they highlight some shortcomings in the course of their provincial travels, the central government will probably not be too upset. It wants to bring wayward local governments to heel, as part of its drive to cut corruption and impose more order on the economy. A bit of publicity may be helpful.

The central government retains plenty of tools if it does feel the need to block news. These include sweeping secrecy laws, and powers to keep journalists away from scenes of unauthorised protests. Political prisoners, once freed, are often banned from contact with the media. China's legislature is considering a new law to fine media organisations for reporting details of natural disasters and other emergencies without permission.

Nor will easier access for foreign journalists working in China necessarily translate into easier access for Chinese citizens to foreign media. Foreign websites containing news about China are often blocked, as are shortwave broadcasts. The distribution of foreign news publications is subject to tight curbs. Those containing articles considered unfavourable to the government often have the offending pages ripped out before they reach the news-stands (The Economist included).

The new rules governing foreign journalists are due to lapse in October 2008, after the Olympic games and the subsequent Paralympics. A senior official responsible for news management, Cai Wu, said last week that if the regulations proved “beneficial to our development” then the policy would remain in effect.

It remains to be seen, however, how local governments respond. They have long been adept at ignoring central directives they dislike. Some have deployed thugs to keep unwanted visitors at bay.

The new rules are meant to signal that China is moving closer to developed countries in the way it handles the media. But unless local governments accept them too, a very different message may be sent: that China is moving rapidly closer to the norm of a developing country where central authority is weakening and disrespect for the law is widespread. Journalists, Chinese and foreign alike, will have to deal with the hazards this trend poses.

In a quaint tradition the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing used to mark the end of foreign correspondents' stints in China with a gift. There was probably no irony intended in the choice of memento: a plate emblazoned with a picture of the Great Wall. China's most famous architectural deterrent to foreign interaction was a fitting symbol for those reporting on the country. They were hemmed in by rules banning much that, elsewhere, would seem routine. Not any more. On January 1st looser rules came into force. It is too early to cheer; but this may be an important reform to a woefully repressive system.

Before, foreign journalists had to obtain permission from the relevant local government for any reporting outside the capital. Journalists are an unruly lot and of late most have simply ignored the rule. The central government has turned a blind eye. Not, however, local governments, which would routinely expel foreign journalists on their patch, sometimes after detaining them and roughing them up first.

The new rules, however, in force until after next year's Beijing Olympics, allow foreign reporters to go more or less where they please. The implications are wide-ranging: for the first time, the foreign press can legally cover breaking news outside Beijing, as it unfolds. To take just three run-of-the-mill events that have until now usually been out of range, these might include a protest against an official land-grab, a disastrous explosion in a coalmine or a chemical spill. The scandalous cover-ups that have blighted China's response to SARS and avian influenza should become harder. All this, of course, depends on whether the new rules are respected.

In an early test of this, our Beijing correspondent has been investigating one outrageous cover-up: over the fate of the tens of thousands infected with HIV/AIDS during a botched blood-collection drive (see article) in Henan province. Cynicism about the government's intentions appeared justified. Soon after arriving in an “AIDS village”, local officials turned up and told him to go away. His phone call to the foreign ministry in Beijing, however, led the local authorities to co-operate.

A sporting chance

A single swallow does not make a journalistic summer. A spate of negative stories and the government may backtrack. It is motivated not by a new-found love of freedom but by practicalities: how to manage 20,000 reporters expected for the 2008 Olympics; how to stop nasty stories about press restrictions; and, perhaps, how to rein in errant local governments. More likely than a repeal of the new rules is that local governments will shift from the arbitrary enforcement of the old ones to the use of deniable thuggery to frighten reporters and their sources. Just this month a Chinese reporter investigating an unlicensed coalmine was beaten to death. Already, at least one of our interviewees in Henan is feeling the heat.

In other ways, there is no let-up in Chinese censorship of all media, including the internet. Journalists and bloggers risk losing their jobs and freedom. This week it was reported that the Communist Party had actually tightened its grip—“pre-censoring” the local press by demanding it seek permission to cover sensitive events. But the new freedoms allowed foreign reporters are at least a step forward, and evidence to support those who argued that the Olympics would force China into greater openness. Those, like this newspaper, who argued that the games would be taken as a badge of global respectability but would have next to no lasting impact on China's viciously repressive politics would be delighted to be proved wrong.

The Economist

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