Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Western media begins self censorship in China

It has long been the case that Chinese media kowtows to the state, publishing only stories sanctioned by government censors and binning reports considered too sensitive. The reasoning is one of self preservation by journalists, reporters and organisations that would otherwise find themselves in hot water. But western journalists and media organisations have often ignored the rules that Chinese journalists have to abide by, delving into subjects and reporting on issues which could land their Chinese colleagues in jail.

Kowtowing to a "Nazi state"

However there appears to be a change in mood with some media companies beginning to kowtow to Chinese authorities, burying stories and self censoring in order to maintain their presence in China. Such behaviour has been criticised by some journalists who liken it to Nazi-era Germany, where news organizations had censored themselves to maintain access to the country.

Such self censoring has come about due to a sustained barrage of attacks by Chinese authorities on western media outlets and its journalists. Following the publication of stories deemed too critical China has blocked Internet access to the specific news organisation's website or refused visa extensions or renewals to journalists.

In the past few years several big names have been targeted after they printed stories delving into party corruption and details of China's leaders' financial affairs.

Critical reporting

In October 2012 China blocked both the Chinese and English versions of the New York Times' websites following a report which looked into Premier Wen Jiabao's relatives accumulation of billions of dollars. The article claimed that Wen's family members "have controlled assets worth at least $2.7bn (£1.7bn)", though it did not make a direct accusation of any misconduct, by either Wen or his family.

Nonetheless, the inference was there, and China condemned the publication as a "smear" and accused the New York Times of having "ulterior motives" [BBC].

A few months earlier Bloomberg had also been censured after it had dared to publish financial details of Xi Jinping's family [Guardian]  

The stories came at a particularly sensitive time for China as it was about to embark on its once in a decade change of leadership. Sensitive reports of an outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, and an incoming president, Xi Jinping, were unlikely to be ignored by China.

Savage response

However their reaction was far more severe than many might have anticipated, and the fallout far larger than one could have imagined.

Some journalists received death threats following the Xi Jinping reports. Leta Hong Fincher, a well-known academic in China who is married to Bloomberg News correspondent Mike Forsythe, posted a tweet in October 2012 saying "we got death threats after Bloomberg story on Xi Jinping" [Business Insider].

The situation has intensified with forced resignations, buried stories and further news blackouts. This month Bloomberg suspended Michael Forsythe, a Hong Kong based journalist who has written many award-winning investigative articles on China [NYT].

Bloomberg gave no explanation of his suspension, nor his eventual departure from the media outlet, but the move came only days after several news outlets, including the New York Times, published reports quoting unnamed Bloomberg employees saying that top editors, led by Matthew Winkler, the editor in chief, decided in late October not to publish an investigative article because of fears that Bloomberg would be expelled from China.

Bloomberg had apparently kowtowed to the Chinese after months, if not years of web blocks, and expulsions targeted against western media.

Expulsions & visa refusals

This month foreign correspondent Paul Mooney, an American who has covered China for the past eighteen years, for Newsweek, the South China Morning Post, and others, became the latest to be denied a visa [Business Insider].

In 2012 Al-Jazeera journalist Melissa Chan was essentially expelled after being refused a visa, finally forcing the news station to shut down its Beijing bureau [NYT / tvnewswatch: Doubltalk & memory holes as Melissa Chan expelled - May 2012]. The war against journalists has been a long one however. Andrew Higgins, a correspondent for London's Independent newspaper, was expelled in 1991 after being found with confidential information about a supposed crackdown on Inner Mongolian nationalists.

The expulsions and censorship has not stopped. This last month saw the Chinese versions of the Wall Street Journal and Reuters websites blocked [Tech In Asia]. The reason was not immediately clear though the blocks came only days after the Communist Party's 3rd Plenum meeting ended and media were publishing their analyses.

Embarrassing stories

The latest round of censorship also coincided with the publication of a story revealing ties between former premier Wen Jiabao's daughter and the US finance company JP Morgan [NYT / NYT / Reuters - Chinese].

Wen Runchun had been using an alias reported to have been government approved and an effort to hide her links to the inner government circle. Her chosen alias of Lily Chang has itself sparked considerable debate. Chang is a common Chinese surname, though it could also be an alternative form of English spelling for the widely used Chinese last name Zhang, often used by Taiwanese or overseas Chinese.

Zhang is the surname of Wen Jiabao's wife, Zhang Peili, a geologist and a former vice-president of the Chinese Jewelry Association. And while her adopted surname matched that of her mother's, albeit with the Taiwanese spelling, 'Lily' seems to have partially reflected her mother's given name, 'Peili'.

Though adopting an alias to cover up a notable family background is believed to be common practise among the children of the elite, Chinese microbloggers have pointed out that forging ID documents is a crime under the law in China.

United States authorities are also scrutinizing JPMorgan's ties to Ms. Wen, aka Lily Chang, as part of a wider bribery investigation into whether the bank swapped contracts and jobs for business deals with state-owned Chinese companies, according to the documents and interviews. The bank, which is cooperating with the inquiries and conducting its own internal review, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, the reports are further embarrassment to the Chinese Communist Party, and a story like many others they would rather suppress [SCMP].

Battle lines

Thus comes the censorship with China blocking websites. Some groups have attempted to thwart such efforts by creating mirror websites and using a subpath of Amazon and Google's domains that support HTTPS access. This essentially means that China would need to block both hosting domains run by Google and Amazon to kill access to the mirror sites such as this one for the Chinese version of Reuters [The Next Web].

Of course censors could block Amazon or Google's domains entirely though doing so could create big problems for thousands of Chinese web services which also use their services. However pressure from China could force the web companies themselves to self censor. Google has already made its feelings clear on the matter of censorship and China and may be reluctant to play ball. Amazon might have more to lose financially and could possibly cave in to government pressure.

China certainly appears to be taking a harder line on Western media which it sees as a major threat. A leaked internal Communist Party document from April listed "Western media" as one of seven threats against which the Party must be vigilant.

"The ultimate goal of advocating Western views of media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of press, oppose the Party's leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology," the document said [Global Post].

White flags

And with the media clearly in the gun sights some organisations are clearly raising a white flag. In early November Bloomberg editor Matthew Winkler is said to have pulled an investigative report which detailed the hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top Chinese leaders. Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, according to Bloomberg employees that spoke anonymously to the New York Times.

When challenged on the issue Winkle insisted that the articles in question were not killed. "The stories are active and not spiked," he told the NYT in an email.

However the supposed spiked stories comes only weeks before high profile visits to China by two senior Bloomberg figures. Daniel L. Doctoroff, the chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., the parent company, is expected to travel to China in the coming weeks. And the company's billionaire founder, Michael R. Bloomberg, told Forbes this autumn that he plans to go to China soon after stepping down as New York City's mayor in January to "give some speeches on behalf of the company."

Protecting assets

Should Bloomberg have gone to press with more unsavoury revelations about China's elite, these excursions could become rather uncomfortable. Furthermore Bloomberg has also seen a small part of its financial arm, and perhaps the most lucrative element of its business, dwindle in China. Financial news terminal subscriptions, which cost more than $20,000 per year and are the main revenue generator for Bloomberg, slowed for a spell in China, after officials issued orders to some Chinese companies to avoid buying subscriptions.

Bloomberg's financial services are a major cash cow and the observation did not go unnoticed by satirical Hong Kong based news outlet Next Media, which mocked Bloomberg's self censorship via a video posted on YouTube [Sinosphere].  

Jokes aside there is a serious issue as to whether the true nature of journalism can be maintained in China when news organisations are going to censor what they report. If Bloomberg are censoring whole stories could they also be censoring parts of a story thus failing to give the whole picture behind a single report. Such questions could play in the minds of  Bloomberg readers who may turn away from the news organisation if trust in their reporting begins to wane.

Losing integrity

But what of other news organisations working out of China. If Bloomberg is kowtowing, who is to say others are not acquiescing to Chinese demands.

Media organisations may lose in the short term by failing to give in to China's demands on not reporting certain stories. They may find themselves effectively expelled from China with visa refused, resident permits revoked and websites blocked. But the reputation of media organisations who stay and kowtow could be irreparably damaged [New Yorker].

The truth always emerges eventually, despite any attempt by the state to cover things up. In fact by attempting to hide things may often create more problems and foster rumours or conspiracy theories far more elaborate that the basic truth would have ever done.

A case in point is the fact that John F Kennedy may well have died from a wound inflicted by a bullet accidentally fired from a secret service rifle [NBC]. Yet the subsequent attempt to cover up the accident has itself created more conspiracy theories than one can imagine.  

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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David Warner said...
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