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Information Revolution Likely to Advance Free Speech in China

November 3, 2006

Xinhua News Agency. Photo by snowyowls.

By Policy Innovations

China’s government news agency Xinhua issued regulations in September that would make it the gatekeeper and the revenue collector for reports from all news agencies sold in China. The move appears designed to further restrict the information that media, including news-oriented websites and financial, cultural and sports publications, can receive and broadcast to the Chinese public.

While Chinese officials promised that new rules restricting the sale of foreign wire service news would stay clear of press freedoms, they talked about efforts to control the distribution of financial news inside the country. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have promised to welcome thousands of foreign journalists during the 2008 Olympics and to allow them to report freely.

One Chinese sociologist pointed out foreign media outlets have not only increased their market share in China’s media market but also have become more influential among a Chinese audience and especially netizens in recent years. The new regulation can be interpreted as an attempt to protect both the commercial interests of domestic news agencies as well as social stability in advance of the 2008 Olympics.

It is well known that China polices Internet news media. According to Policy Innovations partner site Globalization101, since 1995 a number of mandatory and voluntary restrictions have been issued, including a 2002 requirement that text messaging providers install filtering equipment to monitor and delete messages deemed offensive, and a March 2005 requirement that all China-based websites be formally registered with the government by the end of June or be shut down by the Internet police.

For the time being, foreign content providers such as Yahoo, AOL, Google, and Skype have chosen to comply with Chinese government regulations. For example, the companies have installed internal content monitors. Microsoft in February 2006 also shut down the website of a Chinese blogger who was housed on a Microsoft service called MSN Spaces at the request of the Chinese government.

For the longer term, it remains unclear whether the Chinese government will bend to pressure by foreign media outlets. But ethicist Peter Singer is optimistic about the potential leverage of the foreign media outlets, provided that media corporations were willing to pay the commercial price for refusing to go along with China’s censorship.

“If Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and all the major media were to say, ‘We will operate in China without censorship or we won't operate at all,’ the Chinese government would find itself at a scientific and commercial disadvantage, and they might reconsider their censorship,” said Singer in a recent interview.

Beijing-based journalist Jonathan Watts was more cautious in his assessment: “The majority of Chinese government officials consider the media as a threat. In recent years, they have been devoting more resources and more sophisticated techniques to restrict the Internet.”

For example, an official responsible for Internet surveillance told Watts: “It is becoming more difficult to block and monitor web traffic, so we need to switch to guidance. Strict management didn’t work. It is like trying to control a flood. Guiding is more effective than blocking.”

Other Asian governments, like that of Nepal, which is currently undergoing political transformation, see benefit in greater media freedom. In April 2005, a people’s movement in Nepal resulted in the announcement by King Gyanendra of the return of power to the people and the reinstatement of parliament.

“The Nepalese media, particularly the private FM Radio stations played a major role in educating the people and strengthening the political movement,” said Vinaya Kasajoo, an advocate of pro-people media in Nepal. According to Kasajoo, the Nepalese government is aware that press and radio can help create a positive environment for political movements. The government recently issued licenses to 50 new private radio stations, and considered promoting community-based Internet Service Providers.

Internet usage in China has increased steadily over the past 15 years, and has led to more freedom of speech for Chinese citizens. The information revolution is making it difficult for the Chinese government to dictate the media's role in serving the public interest, and the rapid spread of the Internet will likely accelerate movement in the direction of greater openness and social justice. As Singer argues, “If a government can suppress information about its own wrongdoing and failure to act justly, it is much less likely to address the problem than if everyone can find out about the problem. That's not to say, of course, that media freedom is a guarantee of social justice. But where there is no media freedom, social justice is unlikely.”

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