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China and press freedom

Credit: Ingmar Zahorsky

Sean Gibson
Sean Gibson

LAST WEEK IN part #1 of this blog I recounted the methods of restricting internet access and the pitched battle over freedom online.

This week I want to try and give some idea of press freedom more broadly. It was good to explore beyond the general and undetailed assumption that there just must be massive restrictions. There are some lively details and interesting ripostes.

Skewing

I’ll be clear from the start that Chinese media outlets do not publish anything that the Party isn’t okay with. There is a lot of blanket copy-paste of whatever comes out of the state news agency (Xinhua) and the state television station (CCTV – no laughing, you British) – and that should tell you about the room for manoeuvre.

Foreign media have more latitude – but they face a whole different set of challenges, something I explore in depth in a later episode of this blog. But the skewing of the home coverage is obviously a lot more subtle and less blatant than stereotypical and outdated caricatures might lead you to think.

There is only so many times you can ask Chinese news organisations about censorship. You get a couple of tension-raising “no comment”s if you’re lucky, but mostly you’ll get an affable reply about it not really affecting the day-to-day work of reporters.

Verification

More than once you hear the argument that what one might regard as flagrant censorship is not so different from the process in western media outlets – where it would be editorially unethical to rush through publication of a report without verification. But there is verification of facts, and then there is verification of select facts.

Credit: Ignacio GarciaAgain here, though, some Chinese would argue that given the respectively different editorial lines of various western media outlets, the process is not too dissimilar.

If you are a Daily Mail reporter, your report has to be something that the people in charge of the Daily Mail are happy to publish. But that same report might well be unacceptable to editors at different paper – say, the Guardian – who have a different editorial outlook.

Behind

Talking through journalistic method with journalists of Chinese media outlets, however, you realise that there is a definite boundary and a definite difference in approach.

To minimise the danger of crossing the party line, you stick to attributable quotes – steer clear of inference or speculation, and make sure that your investigative journalism – insomuch as it exists in China – remains a step behind, never ahead of, investigation by the state. Then you’ll be fine.

I really am only skimming the surface here, and in the next blog entry – part #3 –  I’ll go into more detail about the landscape of the Chinese media – how those state networks operate, as well as the evolution in the business of media outlets as China has begun to open up in recent years.

Words: Sean Gibson

Top photo: Ingmar Zahorsky

Inset photo: Ignacio Garcia

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