Media freedom in China goes south for the weekend

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

The news out of Hong Kong is that the Southern Weekend newspaper strike is over. It ended quietly and some kind of agreement has been reached with the journalists angry at having their independence threatened by provincial propagandists in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

It’s a no brainer to see how this brush fire over freedom of expression had the potential to become a conflagration for the Chinese authorities. Journalists generally stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues around the world, especially those who, by and large, believe in protecting the independence of their profession from controlling governments, big business and other powerful influences.

By their curmudgeonly nature, journalists hate interference and, most of the time, this works well in many countries as a check on abuses and corruption. The news media exposes corruption, waste and abuses of power and that in turn makes governments and corporations more accountable and transparent.  That’s the theory and often the practice.

It is also one reason why the News International phone hacking story in Britain is so shocking.  Instead of holding those in influence and power to account, it was the media that were committing a terrible abrogation of their responsibilities.

But that’s not the case in China where the Southern Weekend, a reform leaning newspaper that has carved out a reputation for integrity and independence, has been at the centre of a censorship row since last week. While it may be the latest in a string of clashes it has had with the authorities, for Southern Weekend, this is arguably the most important so far.

Here’s a New York Times article to help sketch you an idea of the newspaper’s crusading pedigree. That article is from ten years ago. It was breaking stories through its investigative journalism then, and has been a constant thorn in the side of the provincial Guangdong government.

Guangdong is not just any province. It is a key economic driver of the Chinese economy. Home of the Cantonese speaking diaspora, if Guangdong was a nation, it would be on a GDP basis the 13th largest economy in the world.

What happens in Guangdong matters a great deal to the rest of China. And news of any unrest, as in the case of the Wukan village strike, soon reaches Hong Kong and the news media there, unlike many of its counterparts in the rest of the mainland, is free to report it.

When the Guangdong propaganda ministry instructed its Communist Party representatives within the Southern Media Group (the company that owns the Southern Weekly) to publish a pro-government New Year editorial in the newspaper on January 3, it was duly done. But it was printed without the agreement of the newspaper’s journalists who rebelled after the fact and went on strike over what they viewed as an egregious breach of the newspaper’s editorial independence.  Look here for a detailed breakdown from the University of Hong Kong’s excellent China Media Project on what went down after the editorial was published.

News of the strike and protests then sped through Chinese internet. There’s also been some spill over on Twitter which some Chinese netizens access by circumventing the Great Firewall. The Southern Weekend journalists may even have been emboldened to strike because of the support shown by many Chinese internet users.

In what has become a very familiar scenario in a much bigger struggle over information, the so-called ‘sensitive keywords’ are being scrubbed from the Chinese web by China’s state censors and by self-censoring micro-blog platforms.  Check out the China Media Project’s Data Journalism Lab for a rundown on what is getting censored on weibo (a direct Chinese translation of the word micro-blog).

It’s all a bit like whack-a-mole. I have previously written about the war for information that is being waged on the Chinese internet.  Blogging, micro-blogging and mobile telephony have exploded the old information monopoly once completely owned and controlled by the state. Information on the internet now flows from many to many and it’s a very different information environment from when the government was able to broadcast information in the legacy media landscape that existed before the internet.

As an aside, there is one common tactic that Chinese netizens use to circumvent the censorship – the use of homonyms.  In Mandarin, Southern Weekend is nanfang zhoumo which is abbreviated to nan zhou. A homonym (same tones but different characters) for the abbreviated name of Southern Weekend is southern porridge and this innocuous phrase is doing the rounds on Chinese micro-blogs.

Photos of the demonstrations outside the Southern Media Group building in Guangzhou can be found by searching under the hashtags #nfzm and #nanzhou.

These two men have placards urging the protection of news media freedom.

The striking journalists and supporters did not have it all their own way. Here’s a counter demonstration by a group of Maoists.

If the news today is accurate, the fixers have had their day and the embers of rebellion are being dampened down. A truce is in place and the Southern Weekend has resumed production.  But for a while, the state authorities had a migraine and the authorities in Beijing were starting to get the headache too. The Southern Weekend showdown – and an associated kerfuffle at the Beijing News – is happening at a time of political transition for China. The country’s new paramount leader, Xi Xinping, is taking over from the incumbent, Hu Jintao, and it’s a sensitive time for China’s leadership. Once upon a time in China, it was possible to kill the rooster to scare the chickens but the internet makes it so much harder to clean away the mess and close the cooking pot.

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