Chinese press muzzled at parliament meeting 

March 9, 2008

China is making a big publicity push at this year's annual meeting of parliament to show how open it is to the media, but when it comes to Chinese reporters many of the old propaganda and censorship rules still apply.

While there are seemingly endless numbers of press conferences, "group interviews" and open delegation discussions arranged, the tightly controlled Chinese media is limited in both what it can ask, and what it can report.

"In the reporting of sensitive issues [reporters] must ask for instructions without delay," reads a handbook for Chinese journalists attending parliament from one inland province.

"Uphold the system of submitting articles for approval," it continues. "The responsible propaganda official must sign off on articles planned for submission."

The handbook also instructs reporters on what they should focus on in their stories, to put the province in the best possible light, and to play up visits to the provincial delegation by state leaders.

"Uphold the correct guidance of public opinion," it says, adding that reports on how to improve people's livelihoods, social harmony and innovation should be stressed.

"Reporters must ... make a concerted effort to write stories that are strongly attractive, persuasive and appealing," the handbook adds.

Publicly, China stresses that it upholds media freedom, and has also promised this principle will be respected when Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in August.

But rights groups complain this is nothing but a cover for the ongoing persecution of reporters, and that censorship is widely practised.

Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that in 2007 China was the world's leading jailer of reporters for the ninth year running.

While Chinese reporters at the parliament meeting say conditions for them are better than in previous years, when sometimes they didn't even get delegate name lists, they do not dare ask sensitive questions about graft or ethnic unrest.

"We can't get that stuff out," one reporter, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, said.

The only time some of these issues are broached with Chinese officials is usually when foreign media asks, which can prompt embarrassed giggles or uneasy silences from the attending Chinese press.

Even normally feisty Hong Kong and Taiwan reporters say they can feel compelled to self-censor, lest the government judges they have overstepped the mark and throw them out the country.

"We can't ask some of the questions the foreign press do," a Hong Kong reporter, who also declined to be identified, said.


Source: The Sun-Herald