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In China, Media Make Small Strides

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At the same time, central government officials have failed to narrow a widening wealth gap and stem growing unrest. Rising unemployment, falling exports and imports, and concerns about housing bubbles and a plummeting stock market have prompted officials to stress the need to guide public opinion, requiring reporters to save their most sensitive investigations for "internal reference" and urging them to report the facts about riots and protests but not the causes.

President Hu Jintao said in June that news coverage of emergency incidents should be more timely, authoritative and transparent, but he stressed the need to adhere to party propaganda. "If the media guidance is correct, it is good for the party, the country and the public," Hu said in a visit to the official People's Daily newspaper.

Although some journalists viewed the remark as a signal allowing more open reporting, others said the openness is being pushed only by individual journalists.

"There are pockets of progress and areas journalists can clearly write about that they couldn't before, such as malfeasance and local corruption, but these areas are self-created and may not be sustainable," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst. "The whole tenor of Hu Jintao's leadership has been of centralization, and media control is part of that."

The warning to Du came as several journalists have been seized for investigating corruption or removed from their jobs for aggressive reporting.

This month, the Beijing News published security camera footage showing the arrest of a journalist with the Network News newspaper. Chief reporter Guan Jian was detained for two weeks at the behest of Shanxi public security officials without his family's knowledge, while another police department accepted a missing-person report from his relatives without telling them about his arrest.

"It is actually a terrorist act with violence and intention to fool the public," said Chang Ping, an editor at Southern Metropolis Weekly, criticizing the case in his blog.

Officials who routinely censor Internet access have also recently blocked the New York Times, the Voice of America, and Hong Kong publications Ming Pao and Asiaweek.

"What's the big deal? They are frightening themselves! They have no confidence in their regime," media commentator Li Datong, who was ousted as editor of Freezing Point, said of the officials. Li said officials stepped up trials and arrests this year, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the past, local government officials at least pretended to accommodate reporters, veteran journalist Wang Keqin of the China Economic Times said. "Now . . . they pay no attention to journalists' requests for interviews or try every means to turn bad news into good or retaliate against journalists, sometimes physically," Wang said.

The reason might be that the stakes are higher, for journalists and corrupt officials, said Peter Herford, journalism professor at Shantou University in southern Guangdong province.

"There are more oxes to be gored at a higher level, and many more people are involved in this game," Herford said. "Reporters have also become more sophisticated. They're letting the easy stuff go and instead thinking, 'How do I make my mark?' If they bring down a provincial government official or part of an industry, in a sense, that's their protection."

More broadly, there has been a greater sense of openness over time, journalists said.

On Dec. 8, the Beijing News published a report accusing Shandong provincial officials of locking up in mental hospitals ordinary citizens seeking to file complaints. Allegations that the petitioners were forced to take medication were widely published in other media and prompted a critical editorial in the English-language China Daily, a broadsheet aimed at foreigners.

"Before opening and reform, there were only four pages in the official People's Daily. There were other party papers, but the pages were almost all the same. . . . Now, there are so many non-party papers, allowing different voices to be heard," said Yang Jisheng, deputy head of Yanhuang Chunqiu and a former senior correspondent for the New China News Agency. "If things are not better, how can I stand here and talk to you?"

Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.


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