- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2010

China’s Economic Observer reporter Qiu Ziming beat the odds in July by not going to jail. Mr. Qui had been the target of a Zhejiang police arrest warrant issued at the behest of a powerful local paper company, which Mr. Qiu had exposed for insider trading. Police withdrew the arrest warrant and issued a rare public apology on July 29 after Mr. Qiu’s employers strongly defended his reporting. Mr. Qiu is one of the lucky ones.

On July 23, Gheyret Niyaz, a Uighur journalist and the editor of a popular website called Uighurbiz, was far less lucky: He received a 15-year prison sentence on charges of “endangering state security.” Mr. Niyaz’s “crime”? Giving an interview to foreign media after the July 2009 ethnic violence in Xinjiang - even though he maintained the government’s line that the violence had been sparked by outside agitators.

The government’s message to journalists in Xinjiang: Speak to foreign journalists at your peril.That same week, a Xinjiang court convicted three Uighur bloggers on the same charge. Dilshat Perhat, webmaster of Diyarim; the webmaster of Salkinm, who goes by the single name Nureli; and Nijat Azat, webmaster of Shabnam, received sentences of five years, three years and 10 years, respectively.

It’s been two years since the Beijing Olympics, which the Chinese government heralded as an accelerant for “the development of society, including democracy and human rights,” but a job in the Chinese media remains a risky proposition. It shouldn’t be. The constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees freedom of the press, as does the official National Human Rights Action Plan, which commits the government to strengthening the “legitimate right and interests” of Chinese journalists.

Instead, government officials, security forces and plainclothes thugs continue to deny Chinese journalists even the basic reporting rights granted to foreign correspondents to freely travel the country outside of the troubled region of Tibet and to interview any consenting person. This fettering of local media deprives everyone - citizens, foreign governments and foreign and domestic companies - of a clear understanding of on-the-ground realities in a period of high-speed social and economic change.

Control and coercion of China’s media is nothing new. China’s journalists remain hostage to the dictates of a state propaganda system, which determines both the topics they cover and the preferred official angle of their reporting. That system hamstrings many Chinese journalists pursuing timely and accurate reporting of important breaking news deemed “sensitive” by the Chinese government.

The past few months offer a glimpse into what the government deems sensitive and how it responds to those issues. Google’s decision this spring to stop self-censorship of its domestic search engine prompted the official Publicity Department, which determines the scope and substance of Chinese media reporting, to limit all domestic reporting on the topic to extremely circumspect bulletins issued by the official Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television. A month later, propaganda authorities forbade media coverage of a serious mine accident in Shanxi province from including stories of victims’ relatives seeking compensation. And on May 28, state censors banned domestic reporting of a series of rolling labor strikes in southern Guangdong province, apparently because of concerns that such reporting was fueling a spread of worker unrest.

Chinese journalists who cross the arbitrary lines officials draw on taboo topics sometimes face swift reprisals. Zhang Hong, a deputy editor with the Economic Observer newspaper, lost his job within days after co-writing a March 1 editorial carried in 13 Chinese newspapers calling for the abolition of the discriminatory household registration system. Two months later, China Economic Times editor Bao Yuehang was fired in apparent retaliation for a March 17 story that exposed vaccine quality shortfalls in Shanxi province linked to the deaths of four children and the sickening of at least 74 others.

Just as ominous, Chinese journalists who offend those with power still face official indifference or complicity. On July 29, an unidentified man repeatedly punched China Times reporter Chen Xiaoying in the head in what appeared to be a reprisal for Mr. Chen’s reporting of alleged corporate malfeasance at Shenzhen State Enterprise Co. On June 24, an attack on Caijing magazine investigative reporter Fang Xuanchang by steel-bar-wielding thugs put him in the hospital with head injuries. The assault may have been provoked by any of his trademark exposes of everything from academic plagiarism to snake-oil “medical” treatments that only benefit their peddlers. There have been no arrests in connection with either the assault on Mr. Chen or Mr. Fang. On April 20, a group of 10 unidentified thugs in camouflage outfits attacked Beijing News reporter Yang Jie while he was taking photos at a forced demolition site. Mr. Yang suffered facial cuts, bruises and a smashed mobile phone. Police at the scene briefly detained Mr. Yang’s assailants before releasing them on the justification that their actions were a “misunderstanding.”

China’s rising economic power and growing diplomatic heft make indispensable the reliable, real-time information that only a truly free media can provide. Until the Chinese government can ensure that journalists aren’t bludgeoned, browbeaten or thrown behind bars for reporting, stability at home and credibility abroad will remain elusive.

Phelim Kine is an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.