China’s move towards media freedom? I am unconvinced.

The recent extension of press freedoms in China, implemented during the Olympic Games and due to end yesterday, will allow foreign journalists to continue to interview without permission of the authorities and to travel freely around the country without the presence of a ministry official.

I am once again left feeling unconvinced by China’s efforts. Of course, any move forward in terms of allowing foreign journalists freedom to report is nothing but positive, however it still seems to me a crowd-pleasing effort by China to appear less repressive.

In Beijing during the run-up to the Games this summer I had first hand experience of the ‘cleaning-up’ process that took place. Adverts on television urged citizens to ‘Shhh’ when speaking on their mobile phone and orders for ‘no spitting’ were emblazoned on buses and rubbish bins. I felt I had entered a finishing school for Western etiquette, which, for the record didn’t extend far beyond the borders of the capital where men continued to make quite impressive hacking noises, before directing the resulting fluid onto your shoe. Along with these behavioral regulations were the lifts on some restrictions of media. There was more open access to world-wide news websites and rights for journalists, although rather suspicious breaks in television signal from CNN remained.

All this was for the benefit of the Western World, to promote a forward thinking China. Perhaps cynically, these extensions for foreign journalists seem to me a continuation of this marketing strategy. Significantly, there is no real benefit to domestic journalists, other than a hope that this marks a move towards a more open media environment.

I do wonder if China really had any choice in continuing the freedoms. If it is to remain on track to being the worlds next super power, and even in the current economic climate it seems to be faring quite well, can it afford to impose restrictions on foreign media as it has done in the past?

This said, I am still left with an unsettled feeling considering restrictions and censorships placed on domestic journalists. Now the eyes of the world have transferred to the City and Wall Street instead of Beijing, focus may easily be averted from the repression of Chinese journalists, who are continually harassed and jailed for speaking openly. As the most populous country in the world, and one that jails more journalists than any other this seems to me a shockingly important issue. One that may be masked over by these extensions, which even now are not set to be permanent.

Hopefully they mark a move towards a better media environment in China in general, a willingness to relax regulations, even if it is for the benefit of development rather than freedom of speech. Personally am skeptical and cannot see that in our generation China will reach the environment of freedom that Western journalists operate in. It does, however make me appreciate my role as a budding British journalist.

*** Updated ***

In today’s Telegraph (19/11/2008 )

China’s officials lift the blanket ban on domestic journalists which prevented them reporting the news as it happens. A positive move forward on first consideration, however some may see the progress as yet another aspect of how information may be controlled, and agenda’s set.

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