The International Federation of Journalists today warned that Chinese plans to ban new foreign television channels and step up censorship as well as recent threats to prosecute detained journalists for spying and the banning of a global satellite channel may signal the start of “total war on press freedom” in the country.
On August 5, Chinese news sources reported that China’s Culture Ministry is to tighten controls over the 31 foreign television satellite broadcasters holding licenses to operate in the country. The government plans to ban new licenses for companies to import newspapers and magazines, electronic publications, audiovisual products, and children’s cartoons.
The news came on the day that the Beijing National Security Bureau announced it was to prosecute dissident writer Ching Cheong, a veteran Hong Kong journalist, accusing him of spying for Taiwan. Ching was arrested in April this year. He faces the death penalty if the charges are proved.
The arrest of the veteran journalist, who has reported on China for more than 20 years and has many high-level contacts among government officials and prominent academics, may be intended to send a message to the media about the limits placed on press freedom by the Communist leadership.
In March this year the IFJ protested strongly when European satellite company Eutelsat bowed to Chinese official pressure and cancelled the contract of Tang Dynasty TV (NTDTV) a US-based Chinese television network ending its access to satellite facilities that could reach millions of viewers in mainland China. The channel, founded in 2001, has gained an international reputation for its objective and timely reporting of political, economic, and cultural stories in Chinese.
“China is turning its fire on journalism and free speech on a number of fronts,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “It is impossible not to conclude that this new mood of intolerance and intimidation of independent journalism could signal the start of total war on press freedom.”
The IFJ says that over the past two years, the government has intensified its campaign to censor material that communist leaders worry constitutes politically and socially dangerous influences.
The IFJ says the accusations against Ching Cheong will have “chilling affects on the media’s coverage of mainland China,” according to IFJ President Christopher Warren. The IFJ and its Hong Kong affiliate the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) says he must be given a fair trial in line with international standards of jurisprudence as well as access his relatives, legal representation and aid from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.
The IFJ fears that Ching's arrest, which has sparked international condemnation, is designed to send a message to the media about the limits placed on press freedom by the Communist leadership. Ching had worked as the Beijing bureau chief for Hong Kong’s leftist Wen Wei Po newspaper but quit in 1989 in protest against the Chinese army's suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy.
He is the second employee of a foreign news organisation taken into custody in a year. New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was formally arrested last October for revealing state secrets, but he has yet to go on trial. There are some 40 journalists thought to be jailed in China – the highest in the world.
“While western media companies scramble for access to the lucrative Chinese markets, they must not ignore the shocking truth that China is stifling free and independent opinion,” said White. “Governments, international organisations and media must stand together for democratic values and defence of journalists.”
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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries