Media regulation

Celebrating freedom, until the next clampdown

At the beginning of this year, the Freezing Point (冰点) supplement of the state-owned China Youth Daily (中国青年报) was suspended and Li Datong, its editor in chief was sacked. Coming shortly after an editorial shakeup at The Beijing News (新京报) at which a number of senior editors lost their jobs in an apparent government attack on the newspaper's relatively critical content. The word 'clampdown' began to be invoked by Western commentators, as journalists and bloggers speculated that Hu Jintao was perhaps less liberal than Jiang Zemin when it came to press freedom and human rights. (Your correspondent's take on these events is here: A sting in the tail of the Year of the Rooster.)

Last week, The Economist ran an opinion piece called I'll jolly well say what we want to — Against expectations, China's media are taking free speech seriously.

The article refers to opposition by media to the proposed law that would punish news media for reporting "unauthorized" news of suddenly breaking emergencies:

Caijing, a fortnightly magazine, quoted one academic on its website as saying that freedom of the press was an offshoot of the constitution's (little observed) guarantee of freedom of speech. Restrictions should therefore be introduced with caution. Another academic reportedly said that giving local governments the power to interpret the rules could turn China into a “police society”. Southern Metropolis News, a widely read daily, said in an online commentary that delays in releasing news would only encourage rumours. It called for “healthy competition” between the media and the government over information on emergencies.

Appearing at the same time as The Economist article was a piece by Li Datong himself published in Chinese on Hong Kong's Apple Daily, and in a slightly different English version on Japan Times Online. ESWN's translation of the Chinese article is linked below. Here is an excerpt from the Japan Times version:

But many metropolitan newspapers that once thrived on infotainment have seen their circulation fall in recent years. Sooner or later, readers will start to buy newspapers that can truly inform them and give voice to their opinions.

In fact, it is these tabloids, responding to market pressure, that have started to take on responsibility as public watchdogs. On many occasions in recent years, they have been the first to break sensitive news. As a result, mainstream media are being marginalized, and the previously marginalized media are becoming mainstream.

Thus, even without any change in the current system of regulation, extensive coverage of disasters, judicial abuses, and citizens' pursuit of their statutory rights, along with the questioning of policies from public perspectives, is now common.

So are we now going to see more Western media reports about the Beijing spring? Probably, soon to be followed by more articles on the inevitable clampdown (on somebody or something) that will precede the Spring Festival.

- Note: A key part of understanding the Chinese media environment that Li Datong does not touch on in this article is discussed in this David Moser article on Danwei: Media "Schizophrenia" in China.

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