2007-02-03

Rise of the 'Harmonious Society'

Reporters Without Borders (RSF, Reporters sans frontières), in its Annual Report, observes that 'a disturbingly record number of journalists and media workers were killed or thrown in prison around the world in 2006.' Not helping matters: the complacency of supposedly more enlightened societies.

But beyond these figures is the alarming lack of interest (and sometimes even failure) by democratic countries in defending the values they are supposed to incarnate.

Almost everyone believes in human rights these days but amid the silences and behaviour on all sides, we wonder who now has the necessary moral authority to make a principled stand in favour of these freedoms.

The openness many expected technology to provide often works the other way. Police states are learning to exploit the new technology to filter information and trace the origin of forbidden statements.

Dictatorships also seem to be tightening their grip on the Internet and at least 60 people are in prison for posting criticism of the government online. China, the leading offender, is being copied by Vietnam, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Iran and more and more bloggers and cyber-dissidents are in jail.

Reporters without Borders: 2007 Comprehensive Report


Asia

RSF reports no substantial progress in press freedom last year under this region's harshest regimes: China, Vietnam, Burma and North Korea. The situation in all these countries remains listed as 'Very Serious.'

In China the organization observes a sustained pattern of increased oppression that began as soon as the 2008 Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing:

The repression of dissident movements and ethnic or religious minorities has never stopped in China since the announcement in July 2001 that Beijing was to host the 2008 Olympic Games. Despite some belated objections by the International Olympic Committee, the Chinese authorities harass those who might be tempted to try to “spoil the party.” This is why Reporters Without Borders continues to call for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics.

In the meantime RSF reports that the bleak legacy of Mao's Cultural Revolution continues to be felt in the form of stern government control of what citizens see and hear.

In print media:

The Propaganda Department continues to attack each article deemed to be contrary to the new ideology of a “harmonious society” proclaimed by Hu Jintao. Media editors receive regularly a list of banned subjects. These might be demonstrations by peasants, the unemployed or Tibetans. Nothing escapes the censors, who cultivate a climate of fear within editorial offices. Censorship cases can be measured in their tens of thousands each year. [...] In the run-up to a series of anniversaries, including the 30th since the death of Mao Zedong and the 40th since the Cultural Revolution, the General Administration of Press and Publication issued a warning in July: “News publication has an important role in ideological education and our country’s security depends on strict control of news production.”

Broadcast media:

Radio remains very popular in the cities as well as the countryside. Hundreds of millions of Chinese own radios on which they can pick up international stations whose output is in sharp contrast to Chinese radio. Millions listen to the BBC and Radio Free Asia programmes in Chinese, but their broadcasts are jammed. Some of the equipment used to create this “great wall of sound” was purchased from French company Thalès. In 2006, Reporters Without Borders tested the jamming of Voice of Tibet and Radio Free Asia in Tibet. The authorities overlay programmes on short and medium wave with thudding sounds or educational programmes in Chinese.

The Television sector - particularly cable stations - is rapidly expanding. The country has more than 700 national and local stations and nearly 2,000 cable stations broadcasting 56,000 hours of programmes. But it is the state broadcaster, CCTV, with a presence in all areas, which dominates the market. Regional TV is very dynamic but under surveillance from Beijing and local government. In March, the presenter of a financial programme in Shanghai was taken off the air for being too outspoken. Phoenix TV of Hong Kong is accessible by satellite, possession of which is a privilege open only to foreigners and large numbers of officials. Tourist hotels show BBC and CNN, but censors still unplug them whenever a sensitive subject is broadcast. This happened during 2006 when an Amnesty International researcher was interviewed by CNN on the question of human rights in China.

International journalism:

Criticised for failing to keep promises made during the awarding of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing government has announced changes to rules about foreign journalists. In 2006, there were at least 25 incidents of arrests, threats or assaults against members of the foreign press. A German reporter was arrested in July while he was doing a report on the controversial building of a dam in Yunnan province in southern China. In September, several foreign media crews were expelled from Fujian province, southern China where a devastating cyclone had just battered several cities. Elsewhere, many media websites, including that of the BBC World Service, are blocked in China.

Hong Kong continues to enjoy real press freedom but political and financial pressures from Beijing are constantly increasing. Those running the pirate station Citizen Radio were taken to court for broadcasting without a licence. A five-year prison sentence against Hong Kong-resident journalist Ching Cheong, has worsened apprehension felt by reporters covering China from the autonomous region.

An the Internet:

China unquestionably continues to be the world’s most advanced country in Internet filtering. The authorities carefully monitor technological progress to ensure that no new window of free expression opens up, After initially targeting websites and chat forums, they nowadays concentrate on blogs and video exchange sites. China now has nearly 17 million bloggers. This is an enormous number, but very few of them dare to tackle sensitive issues, still less criticise government policy. Firstly, because China’s blog tools include filters that block “subversive” word strings. Secondly, because the companies operating these services, both Chinese and foreign, are pressured by the authorities to control content. They employ armies of moderators to clean up the content produced by the bloggers. Finally, in a country in which 52 people are currently in prison for expressing themselves too freely online, self-censorship is obviously in full force.

Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionised by the Internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium. Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China’s Internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world.

Reporters without Borders: 2007 China Report

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