China Tightens Noose on Media as Scandals Simmer
June 19, 2003
By Jonathan Ansfield, Reuters
Editors said the clampdown aimed to curb political fallout from cases like the detention of Shanghai tycoon Zhou Zhengyi which could widen to ensnare members of the Communist Party elite and exacerbate friction between new President Hu Jintao and his still powerful predecessor Jiang Zemin.
"The shockwaves go pretty far," said one editor of a financial newspaper, referring to the probe of Zhou over suspicious loans.
The Communist Party Publicity Department, in an oral directive, has banned investigative reports on the case and other sensitive topics and threatened to punish magazines and newspapers who ignored warnings, the editors said.
It is also debating new ways to control coverage of breaking events after leaks about the SARS epidemic and a submarine accident which killed 70 sailors exposed the weaknesses by censors in an age of Web and mobile phone messaging.
"Some people think 'Will this opening get bigger and bigger'?" said the editor of a party newspaper. But the department "sees it just the opposite. They see this opening could open up further and think, 'I'll plug it first'."
The watchdog was keeping particularly close tabs on popular news magazines Caijing, Sanlian and China Newsweek, he said.
It also was mulling the extreme step of closing several periodicals like the lucrative Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend, which ran a front-page report on the submarine disaster, he said.
However, he and others said the trail-blazing paper, often punished, would probably survive.
The campaign follows a period of relative frankness in the tightly supervised media. It began with live state television broadcasts of the war in Iraq, a practice run for a 24-hour news channel that went on air in May.
In April, after weeks of covering up SARS, the government ordered blanket coverage of the battle against the epidemic after disclosing the actual caseload and sacking the health minister and the mayor of hard-hit Beijing.
Beijing magazines tested the boundaries by running glowing profiles of a whistleblowing army doctor, Jiang Yanyong, after secret interviews.
Then came an uproar over Sun Zhigang, a college graduate beaten to death after being detained with illegal migrants. That sparked debate over legal system reform. Photographs of Sun's wailing father made the covers of Sanlian and China Newsweek.
"It was basically the most open the Chinese media has been since before Zhao Ziyang was removed," said the financial editor of the party boss sacked before the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
The Zhou scandal could taint members of the so-called "Shanghai Gang" of leaders linked to the country's financial capital and Jiang, analysts and editors said.
"We know that it could touch on matters that we can't be certain of," said a Sanlian editor. "For now, we won't be writing about this or SARS anymore."
Propaganda chiefs want to make a point.
"They say there are people who have taken advantage of SARS to advocate freedom of the press," said the party newspaper editor. "That means there still will not be freedom of the press."
Additional reporting by John Ruwitch