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Chinese Government Tightens Constraints on Press Freedom

Oh no … the Chinese government is at it again.  The New York Times is running on its front page today an article with the ominous title “Chinese Government Tightens Constraints on Press Freedom.”  Here is the full text of the article.

HONG KONG — China introduced new restrictions on what the government has called “critical” news articles and barred Chinese journalists from doing work outside their beats or regions, putting further restraints on reporters in one of the world’s most controlled news media environments.

Reporters in China must now seek permission from their employers before undertaking “critical reports” and are barred from setting up their own websites, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television announced in new rules Wednesday.

The state agency said in a statement on its website that the rules came after a series of cases involving misconduct by journalists, including extortion. But journalists and rights activists said the rules could have a chilling effect on reporting in China, a country already ranked 173rd out of 179 countries on the press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.

Yet despite the restrictions on reporters, newspapers and magazines such as Southern Weekend and Caixin routinely publish scathing investigative articles that expose social ills and corruption. Caixin, for example, broke a series of articles about the business interests of the family of the former security chief Zhou Yongkang starting late last year.

That kind of reporting may be more difficult under the new rules, said Ji Shuoming, a Chinese journalist now based in Hong Kong, who added that aggressive investigative journalists will find it hard to write articles without venturing outside their beats or regions. That puts them at risk if their work draws the anger of any officials, he said.

“Now they have this rule, if they don’t like what you wrote they can say you violated the rules,” said Mr. Ji, who this year wrote an exposé about the business interests of Li Xiaolin, the daughter of former Prime Minister Li Peng.

The new rules come amid a surge in restrictions on expression following the elevation of Xi Jinping to the top leadership posts in November 2012. Last year, several bloggers were arrested after new restrictions on publishing “rumors” were established by the state. Activists who have called for officials to declare their assets have been jailed.

With China’s severe pollution, food-safety worries and widespread official corruption, high-quality journalism is needed more than ever, said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch.

“What public health scare or environmental disaster or toxic product won’t get reported?” Ms. Richardson said. “What corruption cases, unrest, or prosecutions won’t people get to know about? Closing the already narrow space for independent, critical journalism is a tremendous mistake.”

I wonder why before the rule has even been applied, the New York Times is already proclaiming that this rule has been promulgated to allow Chinese government officials to get away with more corruption.  With the Xi Jin Ping’s campaign on corruption, I doubt there will wide-scale abuse of the rule.  Yet the Times spent over 50% of the article (by word count) articulating this speculation!

On the flip side, the New York Times article problem gave short thrift (11 out of 418 words) to the real problem of blackmail and extortion that gave rise to the new regulation.  The problem of rampant rumor mongering and extortion is very real in China that even the New York Times reported on it last year in an article titled “True or Faked, Dirt on Chinese Fuels Blackmail.” In my view, if the government has a duty to curb corruption, so it also has the duty to curb blackmail and extortion against government officials because both reduces the effectiveness and accountability of governance.

The New York Times is completely disingenuous in its intoning that the government has promulgated theses rules to curb media criticism.  As it acknowledges in the same article, critical journalism is alive and well in China.  But it is not just the Caixins of China that is running critical reports, it is the entire ecosystem of Chinese media … down to individual bloggers and weiboers China.  As I have written before, the Chinese government actually actively culls the web and media for criticisms as a legitimate voice of the people and tries to actively address those criticisms in their daily governance.  Call that e-democracy … or call it spying on the public if you want.  But criticism of the government in China really represents too valuable a source of information for the government to silence! 1

When I travel to China, I am indeed surprised at the number of critical and intelligent reports I come across on print, T.V., and internet media.  By comparison I feel American media to be quite stale.  Yes, there are always lively partisan criticisms, but criticisms that actually cast on the myriad problems of America … there is very little.

New York Times’ constant focus on freedom of speech in China for me is misplaced ideological attack.  As Norm Chomsky has already detailed in his theories on manufactured consent, government can readily control what the media reports and not report without any laws that on the face constrain the speech.  In a recent op-ed titled “the Fog Machine of War”, Chelsea Manning (a former United States Army soldier who has been sentenced to 35 years in jail for violating the Espionage Act and other offenses) described how through controlled restrictions on information access, the U.S. military can ensure virtually all reports involving the military will be a positive one.  Of course, the entire U.S. does that on a system-wide scale, but Manning doesn’t get into that (35 years is enough, I suppose).  If China wants to chill speech, it can readily do so, without resorting to making new regulations.

Another misplaced ideological focus of the New York Times is its focus somehow that freedom will beget truth.  It is actually quite rare that freedom without oversight begets truth (see also, e.g., this article about the impetus for reddit to censor “climate change deniers” from its forums).  Think, for example, how the public would be able to sort between truth and falsehoods if there were no veracity standards on what drug manufacturers may put or claim.  That is true everywhere – in the U.S. as well as China.

In a recent Time Magazine article titled “Supreme Court Skeptical of Laws Against Lying,” Time reported that the Supreme Court in a narrow technical decision will allow a Ohio Law prohibiting false political speech to be challenged in court.  The article made clear that the Supreme Court is skeptical of laws criminalizing falsspeech but may ultimately allow it if circumstances warrant.

Lying is a pillar of politics, as intrinsic a piece of the American electoral system as money and fear. We lament the false attack ads, the twisted narratives, the distortions of campaigns. But a Supreme Court decision Monday raises questions about whether states’ attempt to police campaign falsehoods may be more detrimental than the lies themselves.

The Court’s ruling on Monday was limited in scope. … The Court skirted the question of whether Ohio’s law was constitutional….

But the ruling was still an important one. It suggests the Court is deeply skeptical toward states that attempt to police political advertising. Ohio is one of 16 states with statutes on the books designed to prevent false statements in campaigns. “The burdens” that such laws “impose on electoral speech,” Thomas writes, “are of particular concern here.”

… in oral arguments in April, the justices hurled spirited objections to the implications of anti-lying laws. Justice Antonin Scalia made a dark allusion to the “Ministry of Truth,” the nefarious propaganda police in Orwell’s 1984. The Court’s ruling could pave the way for a future challenge to states’ ability to guard against willful or reckless embellishment.

But if states can’t shield citizens from lies, what becomes of the voters who don’t have the inclination or ability to run down the facts on their own? The 2014 elections, like each one preceding them, will be a riot of spin, spurious argument and deliberate misinformation. …

Truth may be in the eye of the beholder, but someone has to hold people responsible when they pull the wool over our eyes.

Americans may believe distortions and lies to be a necessary part of politics. There are no impartial entities (government or otherwise) that can be trusted with refereeing truth. The best we can do is to rely on a competition of lies.

But there are visions of alternative political systems.  The Chinese are experimenting to see, for one, if it is able to have politics based on rationality, on truth, competent and moral leadership.  That is a compelling vision, too.

I wish we could give all political systems a chance.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.  We humanity will all benefit from the lessons learned.

Notes:

  1. See, e.g., this interview of Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Fu Ying on China (“China’s political system is a product of China’s history. It is based on the country’s own culture and is subject to a constant reform process, which includes the building up of democratic decision-making processes in China. In order to make the right decisions, you have to listen to the people and their criticism. No government can survive if it loses touch with the people and reality. And we have a very critical view of ourselves.”)
  1. choic
    June 23rd, 2014 at 00:06 | #1

    > Another misplaced ideological focus … is its focus somehow that freedom will beget truth. It will actually quite rare that freedom without rules begets

    It is insightful and profound. IMHO: Only a truthful heart begets truth.

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