Is China's Press Waking Up?

Chinese journalists are beginning to protest attacks, harassment and arrests, according to a special report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which argues that discussion of press rights and the central government's stance may foretell the future of broader reforms.

The Oct. 19 report, which can be found here, by CPJ researcher Madeline Earp, said that interviews with more than a dozen journalists, lawyers, and analysts, along with a review of five recent cases, "point to a journalism community asserting the principle of press rights—if not press freedom—and finding at least limited success."

Through blogs, text messaging and public protest, the report said, at least one journalist in detention was freed, an arrest warrant against another was quashed and a top corporate executive issued an apology after a confrontation with a newspaper. As of January 2009, the CPJ reported, China had 24 journalists in jail – more than any other country.

The new assertiveness on the part of China's journalists comes at a time when many others have begun to speak out, especially in the wake of the selection of dissident writer Liu Xiaobo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu has been imprisoned for his role in drafting the so-called Charter 08 manifesto (which Asia Sentinel reported on Jan. 7, 2009) two years ago calling for democratic reforms.

As the New York Times reported last week, a handful of top Communist Party officials published a letter on Oct. 1 calling on the government to abolish censorship and called for the uncensored circulation of books, newspapers and magazines and the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. Among the 23 who signed the letter are Li Rui, now 93, a former secretary to Mao Zedong who was later imprisoned for criticizing his excesses, as well as former top officials of People's Daily, the China Daily and other retirees, such as the former curator of the Forbidden City and a former deputy political director of the military from Guangzhou. More than 400 others have since added their signatures, the Times reported.

"Organized acts of protest by journalists remain unusual, but reports on journalists' rights are increasing," the CPJ report quoted Zhan Jiang, a professor in the International Journalism and Communication Department at Beijing Foreign Studies University and well-known media analyst, as saying. Zhan said online outlets and digital methods have been crucial in the emergence of press protection as an articulated issue.

Nonetheless, the government continues to severely restrict direct challenges to either the central authority or the Communist Party.

Many Chinese journalists describe the trend as broad but incremental, the report said. Journalists speak less in terms of "press freedom," with its connotations of Western-style democracy, than of "media rights" because of the connotations of the word "freedom" in China.

Protests that push boundaries

In recent months, according to the report, Chinese journalists have undertaken two organized protests that push the boundaries of what the government allows. Each case involved letters of complaint published publicly online. Although the breaches of professional rights were described as relatively small scale, their authors included references to broader, systemic threats to their rights, allusions that implicate government officials. Censors restricted debate on each letter, but their impact within the industry was significant.

Besides raising public awareness, journalists told CPJ, the two letters helped build collective feeling in the media. Journalists said they were optimistic that a message had been conveyed to colleagues and their employers. When a reporter is in trouble, one said, "The worst thing the newspaper can do is be silent. It's essential to speak openly and encourage others to do the same."

In a sensitive case, media silence

The media assertiveness has its limits, according to the report. When Gheyret Niyaz, the moderate editor of Uighurbiz, a Chinese-language website focusing on Uighur issues, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for endangering state security, the conviction was considered too sensitive to be reported in the mainstream media or to garner support from the professional journalism community. The All China Journalists Association was silent. Six days after Niyaz was sentenced – just as journalists were winning other skirmishes, an Urumqi court sentenced three more Uighur website managers to jail terms of three to 10 years for endangering state security, according to the report. The cases went virtually unreported in domestic news media.

Like media rights, political reform is frequently debated in the Chinese media, which take their cue from political leaders. In one recent example in August, during a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of a special economic zone in Shenzhen city by Deng Xiaoping – a milestone in China's economic development – Wen Jiabao spoke of the need to "promote political system reforms" as well as economic. Those political reforms must "protect the peoples' democratic and legal rights," he said, according to local news reports.

The Communist Party's 18th National Congress, when current leaders, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are expected to retire, is expected in fall 2012, the report observed. "Some journalists and analysts look to the next generation of leaders to turn promising rhetoric into institutionalized reforms. Many others are unconvinced that new Communist Party leaders will ever undertake meaningful, legal reforms that would reduce the central government's authority.

"An indication of what may happen may be seen in the months ahead. Party leaders can create conditions favorable to broad political reforms by allowing journalists, now, to report and editorialize freely." Earp wrote. "By promoting a mere façade of press rights while still heavily restricting the media, they would send a very different political signal, one that promises reform only on terms that will preserve the party's authority."