China wins praise for media freedom amid crackdown
Thursday, January 25th, 2007

China won rare praise this week from an international press freedom watchdog for relaxing some media curbs but immediately signalled a new crackdown on television and the Internet. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom advocate, said it was lifting its call for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in response to China’s efforts on press freedom. It referred to a lifting on January 1 of some restrictions for foreign reporters that allowed them more freedom to travel, as well as China’s support for a United Nations resolution about protecting journalists in war zones.

In a statement, Reporters Without Borders acknowledged there were “signs of change on the eve of next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing.” Yet almost at the same time, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced a new drive to control the Internet, while government censors said they were planning to step up monitoring of prime time TV. Hu said on Wednesday that the ruling Communist Party had to tighten policing of the Internet to maintain social stability.

A day earlier China’s state-controlled TV was told to scrap prime time shows unless they were “ethically inspiring” and put a “positive” spin on Chinese society. Experts said the measures were in line with the Communist Party’s drive to curb domestic freedom that it fears could whip up instability and challenge its power.

“This crackdown on the domestic media has been going on for the past two years now,” said Joseph Cheng, a political lecturer at the City University of Hong Kong. ”The Hu Jintao government has no intention of engaging in democratisation and allowing the media a bigger role.”

However, the government denied there was a crackdown and said it did not practice censorship. ”China has been actively advocating the development of the Internet. But like any country it has to be subject to supervision according to law,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday. ”As for the censorship issue, there is no such system in China.”

Referring to some of the slight easing of restrictions for foreign press, Cheng said China was more concerned with its image abroad and that the signs would prove illusory. ”The Chinese authorities know that China needs to improve its image ahead of the Olympics,” he said. ”But at the same time they are putting tremendous resources into controlling the Internet and curbing the domestic media.”

Experts say the 30,000-40,000 Internet police are working on strengthening the so-called Great Firewall of China that keeps the free-flow of Internet information beyond the reach of the Chinese people. In his call for tighter monitoring of the Internet, Hu urged members of the party’s powerful Politburo to find more advanced technologies to control public opinion.

Meanwhile, the new regulations on television programming go into effect in February, according to state media. Censors will vet all shows to ensure than TV stations “only screen ethically inspiring TV series during prime time,” said Wang Weiping, vice director of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television. And despite Reporters Without Borders saying there were some improvements, it still ranks China 163rd out of 167 countries on its global press freedom index.

(Source: AFP)