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The Internet drives China to loosen its grip on the media

Posted by Author on November 21, 2008

Reuters, Via International Herald Tribune, November 20, 2008 –

BEIJING: The Chinese news media’s increased reporting of protests over land, labor and investment issues reflects an attempt by the government to manage the impact of bad news by acknowledging it, according to two people familiar with the decision-making process.

“The Chinese government has started to loosen its control on the negative information,” said one of the people, an academic close to the propaganda authorities who declined to be identified. “They are trying to control the news by publicizing the news.”

A Communist Party official confirmed that the policy on dissemination of news had gradually changed this year. “It’s almost impossible to block anything nowadays, when information can spread very quickly on the Internet,” said the official, who was not identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “We also noticed that it will benefit us if we report the news first.”

The propaganda authorities have issued an order authorizing news organizations to report on unrest, rather than allowing rumors to take hold among Chinese worried about the effects of the global financial crisis on the mainland’s economy.

Strikes by taxi drivers and protests by newly laid-off workers have been reported regularly, as have riots in Gansu Province this week and a mass petition in Beijing. The shift, if it continues, would be a bold move for China, which legalized the reporting of death tolls from natural disasters only in 2005.

The Chinese media were allowed unprecedented freedom in the first week after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, which killed nearly 70,000 people and unified the country over a dramatic rescue effort. But coverage shifted to accolades for central government leaders and soldiers as soon as questions began to surface about why so many schools had collapsed in the quake.

A blackout of bad news during the Olympic Games in August caused a lag in reporting about milk tainted with melamine that ultimately killed at least four babies and made thousands sick.

“The central government has permitted the local authorities to publicize negative news themselves, with no need to report to upper governments any more,” the academic said. “They have a principle of ‘report the facts quickly, but be cautious on the causes behind the facts.”‘

Official news organizations often lag behind reports posted on the Internet by bloggers and investigative reporters, and usually play down any elements that might raise distrust of the Communist Party, which values stability.

Thousands of people rioted this week over a resettlement plan in Longnan, a poverty-stricken region of Gansu Province where 1.8 million people were made homeless by the Sichuan earthquake. Protesters in Wudu, a city in Longnan, attacked officials and the police with iron rods, chains, axes and hoes and threw stones, bricks and flowerpots, according to the local government’s report of the incident.

Its emphasis on the demonstrators’ violence toward the authorities echoed similarly graphic denunciations of Tibetan uprisings in towns across southern Gansu in March.

Xinhua, the official news agency, made an unusual acknowledgement Thursday of protests in the capital, when it reported that nearly 400 people, angry at losses in an illegal Chinese fund-raising scheme, had gathered in Beijing. The petitioners gathered at the municipal government office Wednesday and left after “persuasion” by staff, Xinhua said.

International Herald Tribune

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