Tuesday, July 04, 2006

No News Allowed

No News Allowed - New York Times: "News has always been a tough nut for Communist dictators. It happens unexpectedly, giving bureaucrats precious little time to prepare the correct ideological explanation; it often undermines whatever propaganda line the state is pushing, and if it happens to involve embarrassing events like riots, strikes, accidents or outbreaks of disease, it can make the party bosses look less than perfect.

The Soviet Union dealt with the problem with the infamous Article 70 of the penal code, which basically defined anything the state didn't want people to hear as "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." Now China proposes to take the art of censorship a step higher with a bill that would severely fine news media outlets if they report on "sudden incidents" without prior authorization.

"Sudden incidents" sounds awfully similar to what most of the world knows better as "breaking news," and in most countries it's considered a core function of the news media.
The trouble with suppressing reports of sudden incidents is that they usually emerge anyway, in a form even more damaging to the state. That happened when the Soviet Union tried to play down the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago; China's cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 only made the outbreak of the disease more severe.

The draft law says that newspapers, magazines, Web sites and television stations would face fines up to $12,500 each time they published information about a sudden incident "without authorization." It is, of course, a horrible idea that strips away any pretense China might have of political openness or modernity.

This Independence Day seems like a good day to point out that no country does itself any credit when it tries to control the free flow of news. In the case of China, it's also probably futile. Nothing produces the cachet and credibility that censorship does, and the Internet has made the job of controlling information far more difficult. Billing a story as an "unauthorized sudden incident" could become the Chinese equivalent of the old, seductive "banned in Boston." "

1 comment:

ChinaLawBlog said...

China's media clampdown law is still in the proposal stage and the way things work in China, the longer it stays in that stage, and the more it is talked about, the less likely it is to be enacted. The silver lining in all of this is that this proposed law is increasing Chinese awareness of the need for greater press freedom. If this law ends up not being enacted (and I think that is a real possibility) its proposal and subsequent failure will end up being a good thing for freedom of the press in China.