Xinhua News Agency

A tighter grip

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2007, 12:00am

Beijing announced a crackdown on 'false news reports, unauthorised publications and bogus journalists' this month. The measure, which came in the wake of a fake story about cardboard being used instead of meat in steamed buns, was reportedly meant to encourage a 'healthy and harmonious environment for a successful 17th Party Congress'.

A joint announcement by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the State Press and Publication Administration declared: 'Those who intentionally fabricate news that causes public anxiety and tarnishes the nation's image will be harshly dealt with, or even prosecuted, if they break the law.'

As fate would have it, at almost the same time, a new bridge collapsed in Hunan province , causing at least 64 deaths. It was supposed to have been unveiled on October 1, to celebrate National Day.

The accident drew journalists from across the country, eager to see if it involved shoddy construction linked to corruption. The news was real enough, so articles on it could not in any sense be described as 'false news reports'. And yet, mainland authorities have prevented the press from reporting this story.

But reporters who went to the site in Fenghuang county to interview family members of those who died were beaten up by hoodlums. The thugs seemed to be acting not just with local authorities' consent, but also their encouragement.

Eventually, a local propaganda official apologised to two reporters from the People's Daily and Xinhua, but he was unapologetic about how other journalists had been treated. Instead, he accused them of being guilty of 'illegal reporting'.

Beijing should realise that by banning reporters from conducting interviews and reporting on the accident, it only fuels suspicions of a cover-up. In fact, such actions are counterproductive as far as combating false news reports is concerned.

Beijing's handling of this event tends to confirm speculation that the Communist Party is cracking down on the media in the run-up to the 17th Party Congress - probably in October - at which a new leadership line-up will be announced. The media has reportedly been banned from covering negative news in the next few weeks.

When Beijing won the right to hold the 2008 summer Olympics, the expectation was that hosting the Games would result in a much more open country. However, current events belie that supposition; the government is currently engaged in a severe crackdown on the media. To be sure, the foreign media is enjoying a more liberal reporting environment, but even that will end when the Games finishes next year. In the meantime, the government is tightening its hold on the domestic media.

Mainland authorities are also clamping down on internet activities. On Friday, police in Hangzhou arrested Lu Gengsong , a cyber dissident known for his pro-democracy articles on the internet, and charged him with 'inciting subversion of state authority'. The central government is also pressing service providers such as Yahoo and Microsoft to make it more difficult for mainland bloggers to maintain their anonymity.

Beijing is evidently trying every means possible to track down and silence dissidents. This is entirely inconsistent with the government's announcement in January that it would safeguard the public's right to know, increase transparency by releasing information and subject itself to supervision by the public.

The Communist Party seems to be tugged in two different directions. One is towards a new era of greater openness and public accountability. But the other is a return to a discredited past, one where the party maintains its grip on power not because of popular support but as a result of keeping the public ignorant.

Hopefully, in the long run, the mainland will adhere to the road of greater reform and openness. That is where the future lies. Arrests and media crackdowns will only return the mainland to a past that is better left buried.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator