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Review of press freedom in China and Hong Kong in 2012

Peking University students buying newspapers in Beijing, China
Peking University students buying newspapers in Beijing, China

Demotix/Alec Ash

(IFJ/IFEX) - 4 February 2013 - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) launches the fifth annual China Press Freedom Report titled Media at Risk: Press Freedom in China 2012, in Hong Kong today. The report reviews press freedom in China in 2012 and provides an important insight into the situation of press freedom in Mainland China and Hong Kong.

2012 saw an escalation in the efforts to control information and censor the media, with the management of media outlets in China receiving up to a dozen restrictive orders a day and a number of journalists who were suspended or forced to leave their jobs due to pressure from Chinese authorities. In 2011 the media situation in China was described as being in the 'Ice Age' and this characterization continued in 2012. In the cases involving Wang Lijun, Gu Kailai and Chen Guangcheng, mainstream media were either completely prevented from reporting on the issues or only permitted to republish those articles originally published in official media. In one case, a government official continuously refused to provide information that was in the public's interest using the excuse that it was a "state secret." The suppressive hand of the authorities stretched to control online media in 2012, with the government targeting microblogs. A number of bloggers were detained for days when they shared messages that were termed sensitive. A veteran journalist, Yu Chen, was forced to leave his job when he expressed his opinions online about the role of military service. Additionally, the comment function on the Weibo accounts of two mainstream online media organizations were blocked for a few days when they published articles that offended the authorities.

Media at Risk: Press Freedom in China 2012 also recounts restrictions placed on foreign journalists working in Mainland China. Many were harassed and others were beaten as they conducted their professional duties. In one case, unidentified people broke into the rooms of two foreign journalists while they were staying at an international chain hotel and destroyed their computers and cameras. Furthermore Chinese authorities refused work visas to foreign journalists in response to the content of their reports. According to a survey conducted by the FCCC, over the past two years 27 foreign journalists have been forced to wait more than four months for visa approvals. Thirteen of them had to wait for more than six months and three journalists who applied in 2009 have yet to receive any response from the authorities. Chris Buckley of the New York Times had to leave China at the end of 2012 because he was unable to obtain a work visa although he had applied months before. The websites of two leading international media organizations were blocked when they published information about the wealth of Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao's families. Additionally, Tibet and Xinjiang are completely isolated from independent media access.

Having monitored press freedom of China over the years, the IFJ has noted that the Chinese authorities are using newer and more innovative methods to track the activities of journalists, increasing the risk faced by journalists in carrying out their work. In 2012, the Central authority assigned two party officials to oversee the media in Guangdong Province, once known as the most liberal province in China. Tou Zhen, former Xinhua Deputy Editor, was appointed as the Chief of the Guangdong Propaganda Department, and Yan Jian, the former Deputy Chief of the Guangdong Propaganda Department and former Publisher of Xinhua in Guangdong Bureau, was appointed as the Communist Party Secretary of the Southern Press Group. They were involved in a scandal at the beginning of 2013 where the content of a newspaper was censored before it was published.

In the past few years, the Chinese authorities have tried to be more transparent by arranging press conferences and using online media to disseminate information to the public. However the manner in which the press conferences were conducted did more to restrict media freedom than promote it. During the trials of Wang Lijun and Gu Kailai a press conference served to divert media away from the courtroom into a press conference where a prepared statement was read out and the press were not allowed to ask questions.

The IFJ learns that the police have also been directly involved in the suppression of media. In one instance the police arranged an interview for media under heavy surveillance which was probably the first time that an interviewee was forced to accept an interview by the police. In another instance the police detained illegally a few journalists in Hong Kong and interrogated them for 44 hours. It is also reported that the Police cooperated with some unidentified people in blocking media from exercising their duties by accusing them of committing a crime.

The censorship of online media also increased in 2012. At the end of 2012, the Standing Committee enacted a law to legalize "Online Real Name Registration" which enables the Authority to shift the onus of censorship onto the internet service provider.

The suppression also extended to Hong Kong, where the authorities chose to buy the entire consignment of a book when it was published because they were unable to control the book's publisher. A journalist was detained by police after he posed a question to the President of China, a photographer was criminally charged, two journalists were assaulted by protestors and two media outlets were attacked.

It was also revealed that the media in Hong Kong in 2012 faced significant interference by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-Ying and other politicians. During the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections, the media faced unprecedented interference. Sing Pao Daily practiced self-censorship under influence and during the Legislative Council Election media received a 'white-list' of pro-establishment candidates whom they were expected to promote unconditionally. Additionally, unlike the earlier transparent and cooperative approach demonstrated by the government and Chief Executive of Hong Kong when dealing with the media, 2012 has seen an emerging and troubling trend of evading all contact with independent media.

In Macau, a group of journalists were forced out of their jobs when they voiced their anger over the escalating self-censorship of the media in Macau. For instance a journalist was sacked after he disclosed that his employer self-censored and journalists were prevented from covering a protest about the suppression of media freedom.

Three journalists working in the region contributed to writing of the Media at Risk: Press Freedom in China 2012 report, and their articles reveal the difficulties faced by the media industry.

"Press freedom is a human right and the media must be able to perform their professional duties without fear and intimidation" The IFJ Asia-Pacific Office said. "The Government does not have a right to prevent the free dissemination of information that is in the public interest, and has a responsibility to protect the free access to information."

The IFJ urges the General Secretary of China Xi Jinping to adopt recommendations contained in the Media at Risk: Press Freedom in China 2012 report, and uphold press freedom and freedom of expression.

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