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China abandons blanket press censorship

November 21, 2008

China's propaganda chiefs have abandoned press controls that
prevented the media from reporting the news as it happened.
By Malcolm Moore in Hong Kong
The Telegraph (UK)
November 19, 2008

Until recently, Chinese media could only report on sensitive ongoing
events - such as the crisis involving toxic baby milk or the riots in
Tibet - after they had gained permission from the country's ministry
of publicity.

The result was a system that often made China look foolish in the age
of internet news, where stories would only be reported months or
years after the fact. It took 18 years, for example, for the news
that 694 people, including 597 children, had died in an inferno on
Chinese New Year in a cinema in 1977.

Propaganda chiefs are also aware that it left China unable to set the
agenda and "shape public opinion" when it came to news reporting,
since events would first come to light in the foreign media.

He Weifang, a professor at Beijing University, suggested that
allowing the media to operate more freely would give censors the
semblance of legality as they sought to manipulate the media and
enforce "uniform" reporting.

Li Chanchun, the minister of publicity and one of the nine members of
the Communist Party standing committee, has ordered that information
should now be released without prior consultation with the senior
leadership. A new press law is also being mooted to give reporters
more freedom of movement and to define what the role of the media should be.

The new policy is especially designed for the internet era, and
indicates that the leadership is concerned that in the absence of any
real reporting, they are open to malicious and fast-spreading rumours
on the web.

Hu Jintao, China's president, said on a recent visit to People's
Daily that news reports on "sudden-breaking public events" should be
released immediately to help counter any public unrest, and so that
the government could "firmly grasp the initiative in news propaganda work".

The new initiative is already having some effect. When taxi drivers
in Chongqing went on strike last week, there was near universal
coverage the following day.

David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at Hong Kong
University, said: "The March unrest in Tibet and the May 12 Sichuan
earthquake offered party leaders very different lessons about
information control. In the case of Tibet, China sealed off the
region, creating a vacuum in which international media took the lead
in the agenda setting process.

"By contrast, coverage of the Sichuan quake was relatively open, and
this enabled China to set the agenda and project a favourable
international image."
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