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Monday, February 06, 2006

No Witness to a Free Media in China

Cam MacMurchy, a Canadian journalist living in Beijing, has an incredible article in the Victoria Times - Colonist (subscription link) on the state of the press inside China. Here are some excerpts:
The announcement that Google was joining search engine MSN in voluntarily filtering search results in China was met with derision among foreigners here — at least, when we actually got some details of the announcement.

You see, the BBC threw up a graphic saying GOOGLE GAGGED and then cut to a com¬puter screen with somebody typing in “dalai la. . .“ and then the screen went black. How ironic that a story about censorship is cen¬sored.

As Orwellian as that might seem, it happens all the time. If CNN or the BBC talk about the Dalai Lama, Taiwan independence or human rights, one of the thousands of Communist television censors flips the switch and the broadcast shuts down. Usually the story will come back on during the reporter’s signoff.

Of course, the stories blocked by the government are the ones of most interest, especially to foreigners. We’ve grown up in countries where the press is free, where information is always available, where people are allowed to challenge authorities, where people can have differing opinions. And never have I valued that more than now.

One of my good Australian friends, who worked here in state-run media, one day had enough of parroting the government’s line. He went into the director’s office, sat down, and said:“There’s no journalism in China.”. Needless to say, an argument erupted, and he’s no longer employed in the country. But his case was solid: Part of a journalist’s job is to hold those in authority to account, especially governments. And here, that simply doesn’t happen.

Xinhua, the wire service in China, recently released a refresher for journalists on how they should conduct themselves: “Through persistent ideological and political education as well as education in professional ethics, we must help the broad ranks of journalistic workers firmly establish Marxist views on news, vigorously promote the party’s fine tradition in journalistic work, strictly observe discipline in journalistic work and standards of professional ethics, and consciously build a ‘fence’ to keep out false news.”
[...]
Our only saving grace is the knowledge that at least our home countries are free, and that sometimes, we can get on un-blocked western websites to read about what’s really going on.

We tout the merits and talk glowingly about freedom of the press to our Chinese friends and colleagues, but after more than 55 years of spoon-fed propaganda, the Chinese don’t really seem to understand.

One friend wrote an article about the Olympic Games in Beijing for a local daily. She interviewed poorer residents, who were about split 50-50 on whether the Olympics Will benefit the city. She wrote the article and had it rejected by her newspaper, and was then told her Communist party membership application would be put on hold as a result. She told me surely Vancouver media aren’t allowed to write anything negative about the 2010 Games, either.

Many Chinese are aware that the radio stations, newspapers and television shows are filled with propaganda but believe somehow that western governments do the same. If I can question the truthfulness of a Xinhua article, then they can question the CBC. After living in an isolated state for so long, nobody here is really sure what a free press is. And that’s dangerous.

So it’s sad when a western company — a company that made its fortune in a free, democratic and innovation-oriented society — decides to team up with the Chinese government to thwart those same values for hundreds of millions of people.

And to be fair, Google isn’t the first and won’t be the last company to work in concert with China’s government. Microsoft has already launched its censored version of MSN search, Yahoo turned over e-mail information to the authorities that resulted in the arrest of a journalist, and other companies are building computer infrastructure to help the government keep a tight lid on online information.

At last count, China was employing between 30,000 and 50,000 people whose sole job is to ensure no wayward information can be found online.

The Chinese government is free to do what it wants with information, and if it insists on controlling it, and if the people accept that, then so be it. But it’s a sad day when western companies become enablers, all in the name of the almighty dollar.

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