China: Media Summit Participants Should Push for Press Freedom

A pro-democracy protestor clambers onto a police vehicle (L) holding a placard that reflects a street light, while a policeman (R) holds demonstrators back in Hong Kong on Oct. 1. (Photo: Antony Dickson/ AFP-Getty Images)

Participants at the World Media Summit, to be held in Beijing on October 8-10, should use the opportunity to urge the Chinese government to respect press freedom and stop its routine harassment, detention, and intimidation of journalists, Human Rights Watch said.

The Summit—organized by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, whose director, Li Changjun, is the former vice-director of the Propaganda Department—expects representatives of 130 foreign media organizations to discuss future media trends and opportunities in bilateral and multilateral media cooperation. The participants will include News Corporation Chairman & CEO Rupert Murdoch, AP President & CEO Thomas Curley, Reuters News Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger and BBC Director-General Mark Thompson.

"The Summit's participants need to know that this event is being convened by a government that regularly denies basic press freedoms," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Without a candid discussion about the difference between genuine media and propaganda, the need to stop harassing and abusing Chinese and foreign journalists, and the importance of reliable, real-time information from inside China, the summit runs the risk of eroding rather than defending media freedoms."

Human Rights Watch said that China's domestic media has for decades been subject to strict government controls that ensure that reporting falls within the boundaries of the official propaganda line. For example, in May 2009, the Guangdong provincial government demanded—in the name of "harmony," "stability," and "national interests above all"—that state media outlets reduce "negative" coverage of issues ranging from government officials to public protests.

Foreign journalists have been effectively barred from entering Tibet since the March 2008 protests there except on highly circumscribed visits. Chinese reporters have been blocked from writing about issues of global importance, such as the tainted milk powder exported from China in 2008, which eventually sickened tens of thousands of children and killed six. The Chinese news assistants of foreign correspondents are forbidden to engage in any "independent reporting."

Although Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and the Chinese government's April 2009 National Human Rights Action Plan reiterates that commitment, both Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents are regularly harassed, detained, and intimidated by government officials, security forces, and their agents. In the past month alone, a group of unidentified individuals attacked, hit, and pushed to the ground three reporters from Japan's Kyodo News Agency who were covering a rehearsal in Beijing for the October 1 National Day parade. On August 31, two private security guards employed by the Dongguan municipal government in southern Guangdong province to maintain order at a crime scene attacked Guangzhou Daily reporter Liu Manyuan when he attempted to take photos at the scene. The guards shoved Liu to the ground and beat him for around 10 minutes, leaving bruises on his neck and arms and prompting his temporary hospitalization.

These issues and developments do not appear on the Summit's official program. "Silence at the World Media Summit about the Chinese government's restrictions on press freedom would betray the courageous Chinese journalists who strive day after day to defy state censorship," Richardson said.

Foreign corporations have a mixed record of pressing for greater freedom of expression in China. In 2005, the U.S. Internet company Yahoo established a dangerous precedent when it disclosed information to Chinese police which proved instrumental in the conviction and 10-year prison term of journalist Shi Tao on charges of violating China's state secrets law. Similarly, companies such as Microsoft and Google have censored information on search engines and blogs in China. These companies have since begun to develop and implement standards to protect free expression and privacy with academics, investors, and civil society, including Human Rights Watch. However, these efforts are new and have yet to demonstrate impact in countries like China.

In June, however, foreign technology companies, in alliance with international business associations and elements of the U.S. government, set a positive example in their response to the Chinese government's demand that those firms install Internet filtering software on all personal computers sold in China. Although the Chinese government described that software, called Green Dam Youth Escort, as a pornography filtering tool, analysis by independent experts indicated it posed a much more sinister threat to privacy, choice, and security. The foreign companies' opposition to the plan helped prompt the Chinese government to suspend the mandatory installation of the filtering software on June 30.

"There is no doubt that press freedom needs more allies in China," Richardson said. "The question is whether some of the world's biggest media companies will fulfill that role."