The press freedom gap

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As Simon noted in his post about the continuing horrors of China’s coal industry, a rookie reporter named Lan Chengzhang was beaten to death in Shanxi last week while investigating an illegal mine. The debate about Lan’s status as a journalist and the allegation of blackmail have diverted some focus from the fact that a man was killed, a point that was made emphatically in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily yesterday. (Roland Soong has translated that piece along with other key stories on the case here.)

One ugly irony of Lan’s death is that it comes even as the central government has promised to ease some of the restrictions that foreign journalists face working in China. The Foreign Ministry announced in December that controls on travel and interviews would be dropped, part of an effort to open up to outside media ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Reuters in particular has done stories testing the new environment, including interviews with the wife of an ethnic Mongolian political prisoner and Bao Tong, a fomer aide to the ousted Party chief Zhao Ziyang. A complete picture of the new reporting climate will take some time. And as with all rules in China, what Beijing decides is not always applied evenly throughout the country.

But as the new rules indicate, the experiences of overseas journalists and mainland journalists in China are very different. Broadly speaking, foreigners have an easier time of it. That’s not to say that terrible things never happen to foreigners reporting on the mainland, or that local reporters don’t get preferential treatment sometimes. But the fear I’ve heard from Chinese reporters is much more serious than anything I’ve heard from an outsider. So it is understandable that the mainland press is pushing to get the same sort of treatment that the overseas media has been promised. The Southern Metropolis Daily said as much in a Jan. 5 editorial. (The China Media Project has a translation here.) Judging by what happened to Lan Chengzhang, the domestic press can use all the help they can get.