By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
BEIJING — For the past few months, freelance investigative journalist Ji Xuguang has been researching a story on the Chinese government’s program of demolishing people’s homes to make way for development. He planned to pitch it to one of his regular outlets, such as China Youth Daily, and have it published.
But his hope sank this week when he saw the latest directive from China’s press regulator. Journalists are banned from writing “critical reports” without approval from their employers, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television warned on Wednesday. They also must not conduct interviews “outside their assigned area of coverage.”
“My heart went cold when I saw the notice. I know it will be nearly impossible now for my story to see the light of day,” said Ji, 34, whose exposes have included the tale of a former civil servant who kept six women as sex slaves and killed two of them.
The new circular, he predicted, would have a chilling effect, discouraging editors from touchy subjects. “This rule is a real threat to us independent reporters. We are angry.”
So far, 2014 is shaping up as a year of tighter restrictions and pressure on the media in China.
In January, the country’s 250,000 reporters were required to pass a Marxist ideology exam. This spring, authorities began a crackdown on what they said was an epidemic of journalists making false news reports, taking bribes and extorting people.
In April, 70-year-old veteran journalist and activist Gao Yu disappeared in Beijing; two weeks later, a video of her confessing to the crime of leaking state secrets was aired on state-run TV. Authorities said she had provided a sensitive document to a foreign website but did not elaborate.
Censors lay a heavy hand on China’s media, and state-run outlets serve as a channel for party propaganda. But reforms in recent years have allowed the sector to become more commercialized and afforded some expansion of editorial freedom.
Nevertheless, China remains near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, and the country dropped two spots this year to No. 175, ahead of only Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. (The United States is No. 46.)
“Despite having an astonishing(ly) vital and increasingly militant blogosphere, (China) continues to censor and jail dissident bloggers and journalists,” the group said. “This new power is also using its economic might to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, compromising their independence.”
In Hong Kong — a former British territory that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 but enjoys greater freedom of the press than mainland China — a senior executive of the feisty Apple Daily said last week that two London-based banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, had stopped buying ads in the paper because of pressure from Chinese authorities.
Bank executives said the decision was made solely on commercial grounds.
This week, Apple Daily, which has been giving extensive coverage to a Hong Kong pro-democracy campaign opposed by mainland authorities, saw its website crippled by hackers.
“There is no question that these attacks were malicious and aimed specifically at the most outspoken component of what remains of the region’s unfettered media,” the Hong Kong Journalists Association said.
Hong Kong journalists are being intimidated physically as well. In February, men wielding meat cleavers ambushed and nearly killed a veteran journalist who had recently been ousted as editor of the Ming Pao newspaper. Two suspects have been arrested, but no mastermind has been identified.
On the mainland, some observers said the government’s campaign to tighten supervision of the media, including this week’s circular, stemmed at least in part from legitimate concerns about ethical lapses in the industry.
“Corruption is deeply rooted in Chinese society, and journalists are no exception,” said Yin Hong, deputy dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.
Ji, the freelance journalist, agreed that there are some rotten apples in the industry, but “it’s a small group. The vast majority of us want to tell the truth and report fairly.”
The high-profile campaign against bribery and extortion, he said, “gives people the idea that we are all thieves. It’s a huge humiliation for us.”
Tommy Yang in the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Photo via AFP
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