Tag Archives: Freedom of Information

China Continues on Road of Information Supression

One thing you have to give to the government/Communist Party leadership in China is that they are ever vigilant about ways people can get information.

In the early days it was merely controlling the newspapers and radio stations. Now, with the Internet and SMS with mobile phones, the Party has been in the forefront of keeping the outside world from informing the Chinese people.

It is almost an annual event that new regulations about online news organizations are put forward.

To back up all the rules and regulations, the government has the Great Firewall of China in an effort to block outside influences. (New York Times, twitter, Facebook, etc.) And they have a cadre (some say millions) of people hired to actively counter any “non-positive” comments about China on the Internet. This group is known as the Fifty Cents Party because people are reportedly paid 50 cents for each comment they attack with a “positive” message.

Needless to say, Chinese netizens have had some fun with the 50 Cent Party

50 Cents

Maybe censorship is the government’s way of ensuring full employment, because reportedly millions are employed to monitor and report on unauthorized information on the Internet.

All this is in addition to the pronouncements of President Xi that the role of the media (and journalists) is to be a lap dog for the Party: [Journalists] must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action,”Love the Party” first. 

Needless to say, such a position is a violation of the ethics of any independent journalist or honest news organization not matter what country.

In addition to the Chinese government and ruling party doing all they can to stop information they don’t control from coming in, they are also trying to control what news outlets outside China can and should say:

  • Australia: Chinese language newspapers in Australia: Beijing controls messaging, propaganda in press – Sydney Morning Herald
  • Hong Kong: As Beijing tightens grip on Hong Kong media, mainland journalists suffer – Committee to Protect Journalists

The communist theory of media control is as old as Lenin setting up Pravda. The difference now is that there are so many different ways to get information thanks to mobile phones and the Internet that repressive government such as the one in China must waste more and more money on monitoring and jamming sites that might carry unauthorized material.

And to be sure, China is not alone. Nor are communist countries the only ones that go in for massive intrusion into Internet freedom. Just think of Turkey (pre- and post-coup), Saudi Arabia or Thailand.

Just think about how much more these countries could do if they focused their resources on growth and development instead of repression of free expression.

 

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Harassment, International News Coverage

Prejudice: A Natural Outcome of Censorship

China Digital Times pulled a great item from an interview with Chinese publisher Bao Pu and writers Guo Xiaolu and Hao Qun (who goes by the pen name Murong Xuecun) from the June 3 issue of Foreign Policy.

The blockage of the Internet by the Chinese government means, said the authors and publisher, that people are not getting enough information to make rational decisions.

[R]elatively few people actually bypass censored information on the Internet. But why? Censorship in the long run breeds prejudice. Once you have this prejudice, you think you know everything, but you don’t. That’s why they’re not actively seeking — because they think there’s nothing out there. It’s a vicious cycle.

I have long argued that censorship means the people of a country will begin to rely more on rumors and prejudices than on cold hard facts. China’s rulers, however, say too much unregulated (censored) information leads to social instability.

What they really mean is that once people start thinking critically, the iron-heel rule of the Communist Party in China will be weakened.

And what goes for China goes for other dictatorships. Think Iran, Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe. Even the leaders in proto-dictatorships such as Singapore and Malaysia want to control all forms of media to protect their hold on power.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Middle East, Press Freedom

China steps up war on press freedom

The Washington Post did a great piece on how inspectors for the Chinese government said the Chinese propaganda office is not being aggressive enough.

“The effect of guiding culture and art to serve socialism and art is not obvious enough,” Wang Haichen, the leader of the inspection team, was quoted as saying. “Its news propaganda is not targeted enough, or effective enough.

“It needs to strengthen further its leadership of ideological work. It does not do enough in applying the principle of the party controlling the media in weak points like new media, or in coordinating thought and political work at universities.”

The complaint comes after President Xi Jinping told media outlets they need to “take Party” as their surname and to “serve as the party’s throat and tongue.

The efforts to control the press have stepped up under Xi and have included efforts to shut down reporting on China’s violation of human rights by journalists not in China.

Part of the campaign is to not only make sure all Chinese media outlets kowtow to the whims of the party leadership, but also to make sure foreign media is made to be seen as the enemy by the Chinese people.

National Public Radio correspondent Frank Langfitt is about to leave China after five years of reporting from Shanghai. He did a great piece today (June 13) explaining how the Chinese government has stepped up its campaign against not only Western journalists but against the whole concept of free and independent media. (As of this posting — 6:30 a.m. June 13 — the whole piece is not yet available on the NPR website. It will be available later in the day.)

The growth of the Chinese middle class and the current economic slowdown clearly scares the country leaders in Beijing. For the past 30+ years, the Communist Party has told the Chinese people that only through the party will economic growth occur. Western notions of democracy, free press and market forces are not needed because “the Party will provide.”

The problem the party now has is that its claim to legitimacy is based on the one leg of economic growth. The current economic slowdown is threatening that sole pillar.

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Filed under Censorship, China, International News Coverage

Getting around Chinese censorship to honor Tiananmen demonstration

This piece was first posted at the blog site of the International Journalism Community of the Society of Professional Journalists.

June 4 is remembered as the day the Chinese government brutally shut down a peaceful demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Beijing that was calling for reforms in the ruling Communist Party and in the government.

One of the most famous scenes is the lone man with shopping bags standing up to a column of tanks.

While no official death toll has been released by the Chinese government, estimates are that hundreds died in the army attack on the demonstrators. An additional 10,000 or so were arrested.

Each year in Hong Kong there is a major commemoration ceremony — the only place in China that has such a thing, thanks to the protection of civil rights enshrined in the handover treaty of 1997.

Also each year the Chinese government tries to censor any reference to June 4 or the demonstration. And each year it fails, because the Netizens of China stay one step ahead of censors.

One of the earliest work arounds was a call to honor the dead of May 35. Or Remember the Square of 8. (For the math-phobic, 8×8=64 and 64=June 4)

The good people at China Digital Times have been keeping track of the code words and phrases the Chinese censors have banned on the Internet. One of the more humorous items is how the ban on “64” caused reporting on the Shanghai stock market fell 64.89 points. (Yes, that looks like 6/4/89) Rather than risk anyone thinking it was a Tiananmen remembrance, the government doctored the stock report for public consumption.

Here is the China Digital Times list. It is well worth the read.: Five Years of Sensitive Words on June Fourth

Be sure to pay close attention the ASCII cartoon of tanks rolling over a person.

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Filed under Censorship, China, International News Coverage

Countries use of visas hurt journalists

Visas are basically applications to enter a country.

The most common visa is for tourism. Brazilians coming to Florida to visit Disney World. Americans going to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers. And so on…

And then there are specialty visas.

If a person is coming to the States for just a few days for business — to attend a conference, attend company meetings, participate in corporate training — the visa is straight forward and is included in the same category as a tourism visa.

Different visas are needed if a person is going to live and work in the US. And within that group there are different categories.

Most countries have a special category for journalists.

The United States has the I visa for journalists visiting the US for a short period. (Living and working in the US as a journalists — as in other countries — is a whole other issue and category.)

While deportations of journalists arriving on a tourism visa and then doing journalism in the States are rare (and often involve issues other than journalism), other less open countries use the journalism visa to limit access to the world’s media or to punish news organizations for what they perceive as unfriendly coverage.

China has long been known as a real stickler for enforcing its various journalism visas.

The Chinese government has withheld visas from New York Times staffers assigned to its Beijing bureau to punish the paper for printing stories about corruption and favoritism in the government and ruling party. (New York Times journalist forced to leave China after visa row)

And for journalists wanting to go to China, the process is long, tedious and often ends in frustration.

For example, I applied for a journalism visa to cover a conference in Beijing. I was living in Brasilia at the time. The embassy held onto my passport for more than a month. Calls to the embassy about the status of my visa went unanswered, other than “It is in process.”

In the end, I got the visa, but on the day the conference started. Given that it takes more than 30 hours to get from Brasilia to Beijing, that meant I would not be going to cover the conference. (This was something I realized a few weeks earlier. I had to inform my publisher I most likely would not be going to Beijing.)

When I lived in Hong Kong, I often got e-mails from friends in the business asking if they should lie about their profession to avoid any drama with the Chinese government. I always advised people to tell the full truth. Beijing is notorious for using any discrepancy in a visa application to either deny a person a visa or to deport the person for “activity not in compliance with visa status” if the discrepancy is discovered later.

Unfortunately for journalists the “activity not in compliance” excuse is what is most often used to expel alleged spies. (Then again, the thinking in Beijing is that journalists are nothing but spies anyway.)

No one really expects anything less from the control freaks in Beijing.

And then there are governments such as the one in Indonesia that are officially open and democratic but that also freak out if journalists start asking too many questions.

The latest example is of a British journalist being held in Indonesia for filming while doing a documentary on piracy. Usually journalists are just expelled from the country for visa violations, this time, however, the journalists face five months in prison and a $3,700 fine. (Jail British journalists for five months, says Indonesian prosecutor)

There are examples of people who get away with coming in on a tourist visa, doing some journalism and getting out. However, once discovered, these same journalists can kiss goodbye the chance to get another visa. (India: Let us in!)

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Filed under Asia, Freedom of access, Harassment, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

China needs to learn from Hong Kong

As usual journalist Frank Ching is spot on in his analysis.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China, people were saying Beijing could learn from Hong Kong how to enter the modern world of finance and politics. But there are lessons Beijing just does not seem to want to learn.

For example, when a major issue dominates the public’s concern, the Hong Kong government sets up commissions to investigate and report back to the people.

Such commissions are part of Hong Kong’s tradition. The British colonial government, between 1966 and the handover to China in 1997, set up commissions of inquiry 12 times to look into such issues as the cause of riots, a fire on a floating restaurant that claimed 34 lives, and the flight from Hong Kong of a police chief superintendent wanted on corruption charges. The strength of such inquiries is that they are conducted by individuals of standing in the community who, while appointed by the government, act independently. Often, such inquiries are headed by judges.

The latest issue is the discovery of lead in the Hong Kong drinking water. The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong reacted in a way that does credit to the recent history of Hong Kong. They set up a commission.

[T]he commission is headed by Justice Andrew Chan, a high court judge. The commission’s terms of reference are to ascertain the causes of excess lead found in drinking water in public rental-housing developments; to review and evaluate the adequacy of the present regulatory and monitory system in respect of drinking-water supply in Hong Kong; and to make recommendations with regard to the safety of drinking water in Hong Kong.

Frank also points out that the people of Hong Kong know what the local standard is and how it compares to the World Health Organization standard. BTW, 10 micrograms per liter for both.

Now take the explosion at Tianjin — as Frank did — as an example of how not to investigate a major incident that have people concerned for their health and safety.

Premier Li Keqiang promised to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner.” But the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus has moved in as usual and demanded: “Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media…. Do not make live broadcasts.”

Cyanide has been detected in the soil near the blast sites, but a Chinese official, Tian Weiyong, director of the environmental emergency centre of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was quoted as saying that the level does not exceed the national standard. However, we are not told what the Chinese standard is and how it compares with WHO guidelines.

And just as a side note, Frank points out that even if China revealed the “Chinese standard,” it would probably not be of much comfort to the people. In the case of the Hong Kong lead-in-the-water situation, it would never come up as an issue in China. While the readings in Hong Kong exceeded WHO standards by four times, they would have been within Chinese standards of 50 micrograms of lead per liter of water, or five times that of the WHO.

Frank’s bottom line is something a lot of us have argued for years. When the Chinese people know the information they are getting has been carefully sifted and purified, they reject the official statements and turn to rumors for information. Rumors cause panic. And yet, the Chinese leadership says controlling information is necessary to preserve social stability. They really don’t seem to see how their actions are actually adding to instability. (Or at least they are acting as if they don’t see the connection between media control and social instability.)

Independent commissions to investigate disasters and access to the commission reports have provided stability to Hong Kong society. People may not like the results of the studies, but at least the process is public and the public knows how and why the conclusions were reached.

Frank points out

China can learn from the outside world is the creation of an independent body, such as a commission of inquiry, to show its determination to uncover the truth, regardless of where it leads. Such commissions are used around the world, including by the United Nations.

Setting up such a commission lifts a huge burden from the government’s shoulders. The trouble is that, in China, the Communist Party won’t let anyone else investigate.

He adds another problem finding individuals trusted by the people to serve on the commission. “After all, there is no independent judiciary,” he wrote, “no Independent Commission Against Corruption and no Office of the Ombudsman where people of integrity may flourish.”

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Filed under Censorship, China, Freedom of Information, Hong Kong

Transparency and Free Press

Each year the U.S. State Department is required by law to provide a report on the fiscal transparency of other countries. In general it is a good idea to keep track of how open governments are with their budget process.

Many of the countries that did not meet the minimum level of transparency also do not meet the minimum level of freedom of press, speech and assembly.

To be clear, some of the countries that met the State Department’s minimum level of transparency also have some real problems with press and speech freedoms. For example, Ecuador passes the transparency test put fails the press freedom test. According to Freedom House: “President Rafael Correa and his administration openly disparaged and attacked private outlets and journalists.”

Still, where the freedoms of speech, press and assembly are honored — this is also a problem in Honduras, which also passed the transparency test — generally there are fewer instances of failing the transparency test.

A quick review of the countries failing the transparency test also shows countries with limited or no press freedom. Here are a couple of examples:

China failed the transparency test:

The budget proposal is not made publicly available before the budget is enacted. Budget documents do not identify financial allocations to state-owned enterprises.

And it fails in press freedom (Freedom House):

For the first time in several years, professional journalists from established news outlets were subjected to long-term detention, sentencing, and imprisonment alongside freelancers, online activists, and ethnic minority reporters.

One of the best ways to cure lack of transparency — and to attack corruption — is a strong and independent media.

Oh, by the way, the test for transparency is not that difficult to pass (not if Honduras passed it):

The FY 2015 fiscal transparency review process evaluated whether the identified governments publicly discloses budget documents including expenditures broken down by ministry and revenues broken down by source and type. The review process also evaluated whether the government has an independent supreme audit institution or similar institution that audits the government’s annual financial statements and whether such audits are made publicly available. The review further assessed whether the process for awarding licenses and contracts for natural resource extraction is outlined in law or regulation and followed in practice, and whether basic information on such awards is publicly available. The Department applied the following criteria in assessing whether governments met the minimum requirements of fiscal transparency.

So the points are:

  1. Did the government publish a public budget?
  2. Did the government describe how much each agency gets?
  3. Is there an auditing procedure?
  4. Are their rules for the exploitation of natural resources?
  5. And is all this information public?

To be honest that is a pretty low bar to pass. But, if a government doesn’t want free press, it surely does not want its people to be seeing how the money is spent.

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Filed under Corruption, Freedom of Information, Press Freedom, Transparency