A Free Press? Some Foreign News Agencies are Self-Censoring their Chinese Websites So They Won’t Be Blocked in China

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A cartoon released by the Chinese government this year tells the tale of a Chinese girl who is tricked into leaking secrets to her boyfriend, who turns out to be a foreign spy.In recent years some foreign journalists in China (primarily those from certain democratic countries) have been accused of being spies.

In February of this year President Xi Jinping conducted a highly publicized tour of state news agencies, where he reportedly demanded that journalists pledge their absolute loyalty to China’s Communist Party. While Xi’s prolific focus on domestic media censorship is certainly no secret —  since his ascension to General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 the government has increased its use of surveillance, financial incentives, intimidation and even imprisonment to keep journalists under its yoke —  it’s startling to note that some foreign media outlets are voluntarily censoring their own material to avoid the wrath of the government and break into the country’s enormous media market.

That’s one of the revelations in a September report from PEN America, an international organization devoted to championing freedom of expression for writers of both fiction and non-fiction. According to the report, which relies on information from dozens of foreign reporters and Chinese news assistants, western media outlets such as The Economist, Reuters and Fortune have refrained from posting articles about potentially sensitive topics (human rights, the economy and more recently the Panama papers) on their Chinese language websites that otherwise appeared on their international sites.

When the Panama papers were leaked in April of this year –linking Xi and other top leaders to massive, tax-free offshore financial holdings —  the Chinese-language websites for multiple media outlets reported the leak but did not mention the Chinese leaders implicated.

“The Economist’s English-language website, blocked since April after a cover story on XI, published an article titled ‘the Panama papers embarrass China’s leaders’ on April 7. The article did not appear on the Economists bilingual mobile app. Each month, 30 articles from the Economist’s website are translated into Chinese and published in both English and Chinese on the app, which is accessible in China… In the month of April, during which time much of the Panama papers were leaked, of the 30 articles the app published only one article was about the leaks but made no mention of China,” the report notes.

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Xi Jinping reportedly demanded “absolute loyalty” from journalists at state-run news agencies during a highly-publicize tour of various newsrooms.

The foreign press, and even social media organizations such as Facebook, are eager to make themselves available to China’s 700 million internet users – a potentially huge audience for news consumption. There’s a lot of money to be made in China. But the only way those companies can make that happen is if they play ball with the government.

“It is ridiculous, almost, to imagine that you can push the envelope and do great coverage in Chinese and not be impacted on your bottom line,” David Bandurski, a research with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, told PEN America.

Other interesting findings from the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the journalists interviewed by PEN said they have experienced either physical abuse or intimidation from a government official.
  • News stories perceived to be critical of the Chinese economy or individuals in leadership positions are most likely to trigger reprisals from the government. Bloomberg News and The New York Times were both blocked in China after those outlets independently published articles delving into the finances of Xi Jinping’s family (Bloomberg) and Wen Jiabao (The New York Times), China’s former Prime Minister. Reporters from both organizations were unable to obtain work visas in China following the publications of those stories.
  • The Chinese government has not granted any long term residency permits to journalists from online media organizations. Therefore, online organizations have not been able to establish permanent bureaus inside of mainland China.
  • Foreign reporters, specifically those from democratic countries, are often perceived to be inherently biased against China. Some foreign reporters have been accused of being spies for their government.
  • Chinese sources and news assistants who even speak to foreign reporters have been the targets of police surveillance, intimidation and arrest. Chinese journalists have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements with their employers to ensure they will not share information with foreign reporters.
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