The International Federation of Journalists says superficial and confrontational media coverage of China in the West plays into the hands of hardliners in Beijing who have cracked down on journalists following coverage of protests in Tibet.
“The China story is complex and needs to be told in context,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary at an international media conference in Hong Kong at the weekend. “Shallow media coverage and commentary that appears with a political bias allows Communist leaders to stir up nationalist feelings against media adding to problems facing journalists on the ground.”
Speaking after the IFJ’s mission to Beijing last month, White said that the door was open to a new dialogue with Chinese journalists and he called on the IFJ’s local affiliate the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) to play a role in helping to build a framework for co-operation following the Olympic Games in August.
“Journalists in Hong Kong have a unique role to play in building a bridge to dialogue that can provide new opportunities for spreading the message that media must be free in China,” he said. “After the Olympic Games the fight for press freedom will continue. We will only win that battle by supporting progressive forces that are now emerging within Chinese media and by challenging prejudices on all sides.”
White told the meeting, organised by the HKJA and other media support groups, that official hardliners used the notion of “social responsibility” as an excuse for controlling media. Some coverage of Tibet and the Olympic torch protests by international media had reinforced hostility to free journalism. He said that foreign correspondents working in China had faced a backlash inside the country after recent events.
“Responsibility has its place in journalism, but not at the expense of truth and independence,” he said. “Responsible journalism is the natural ally of media freedom and democracy. It is found whenever journalists are able to work in an ethical environment. It is lost when there is censorship and control of media by politicians driven by authoritarian ideology.”
White said the IFJ mission to China had a number of practical proposals to develop fresh links with Chinese journalism and was looking for its affiliates in Hong Kong and Taiwan to play a role in developing this work.
“There are journalists in jail and there is a chasm of misunderstanding to bridge, but there are reasons for optimism that change may be on the way,” he said. “It is an opportunity not to miss if we want to set our colleagues free and break the chains of Government control over Chinese media.”
The report and proposals for further action will be discussed by the IFJ Executive Committee which meets in Brussels at the end of May.