Australia Broadcaster Kowtows to China

Australia is forever lecturing other countries, particularly small ones like Fiji, on rights and freedoms so it is particularly shocking to learn of the censorship practiced by the state-funded Australia Network to please China, largest buyer of its minerals. The domestic Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) may also be implicated.

The issue has arisen over Ten Conditions of Love, an independently produced Australian documentary film about the oppression of the Uighur people of Xinjiang as seen through the experiences of Rebiya Kadeer, a once-lauded businesswoman who is now in exile and seen as the most prominent leader of her people, who are still 45 percent of Xinjiang’s population despite Beijing’s best efforts to induce Han migration to a region which was mostly Uighur in 1949. (Han are 40 percent, the remaining 15 percent Kazakhs and others)

The film first made news in 2009 when China attempted to stop its screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and in fact pulled movies from the Melbourne Festival in protest against the screening and hacked the Festival website.

It had by then been bought by the Australia Network, which overseas audiences, and was later acquired by the ABC for domestic showing. But it has never been shown on the Australia Network which would make it available in China but only those few permitted to receive it by satellite or cable services available only to non-nationals.

The Australia Network has since described its failure to broadcast the film as being inadvertent. However, its former network programmer, Rod Webb wrote: “There was nothing inadvertent about Australia Network’s failure to show the film. I was instructed on a number of occasions not to show it until further notice.” He added that on at least one of those occasions he was told that this instruction came from the highest level – the managing director of the ABC. (The ABC operates the Australia Network, a free-to-0air service available overseas and funded partly by the government and partly from advertising)

Another of those involved claimed that the Chinese needed to be given a chance to respond before it was aired. That would seem a curious way for an independent broadcaster to act but anyway no such response was asked. While making the film the producers said, they had tried to get the Chinese government to state its view of the Uighur issue but had received no response.

The ABC did run the film domestically but only after a long delay and sending detailed queries about its accuracy despite the sourcing of much of its material to organizations including Amnesty International and the New York Times and the US annual report on human rights in China.

Although never shown on the Australia Network, the film has achieved considerable circulation among Uighurs in Xinjiang. Radio Free Asia has reported that house to house searches for the DVD have been made and Uighurs have been arrested for possessing it. Their fate is unknown but is unlikely to be pleasant.

The Australia Network/ABC attitude reflects a broader tendency among some senior Australians, numerous in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to want to appease China, sometimes not just at the cost of Australia’s values but of its allies and export markets such as Japan and the US. The other ingredient is specific to the broadcasters wanting to sell or air programming into China.

One might have thought Australia had learned a lesson here. Rupert Murdoch had hoped to get a big presence in China and went out of his way to appease Beijing in many ways, including in 1998 stopping his book publisher Harper Collins from putting out the memoirs of Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor. But this was all to no avail and Murdoch lost a pot of money in China. The Australia Network knows that well. Its chief executive Bruce Dover used to be Murdoch’s man in China and wrote the book: “Rupert’s adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife.”

In this case, the Australia Network is likely to lose its reputation with only a brief respite from Chinese criticism as reward.