The (limited) easing of restrictions on the media in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics seems like an increasingly distant memory.
In January 2007, the Chinese government began loosening some restrictions on foreign journalists, giving them greater freedom to report around the country without having to get the previously required permission before doing so. At the time, a number of foreign journalists put the new policy to the test, including The Economist, which reported at the time that despite initial local resistance when one of its reporters travelled to a village in Henan Province to report on HIV/AIDS there, a quick call to Beijing prompted co-operation.
There were, of course, numerous exceptions, not least over Tibet where already tightly-controlled access grew even tighter following the March 2008 violence between protesters and security forces. International journalists already had trouble getting permission, but from March reporters were banned from the region entirely.
In theory, the freedoms pledged by the Chinese government should also apply to domestic Chinese media—after all, according to Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution: ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.’
But the latest Freedom House report on press freedom in 2009, released yesterday, suggests that the reality is far from this ideal. For foreign journalists, the report noted:
‘In 2009, foreign journalists reported that while their ability to access certain locations had improved, this had been offset by a corresponding increase in official targeting of Chinese assistants and sources…Two-thirds of those working with a Chinese research assistant reported that their employee had been harassed or called in for questioning by the authorities.’
While for domestic media, Freedom House stated:
‘Journalists who attempted to investigate or report on controversial issues, criticized the [Communist Party], or presented a perspective that conflicted with state propaganda directives continued to suffer harassment, job loss, abuse, and detention. According to international media freedom watchdogs, at least 30 journalists, mostly freelancers, and 68 cyberdissidents were in prison in China at year’s end.’
That said, the report also noted that global media freedom had declined for the eighth-straight year in 2009, a continuation of a trend well covered by a Christian Science Monitor piece that opens with the words: ‘The glory days of global press freedom appear to be long past.’
A depressing thought.