A Dark Time for Reporters in China

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Earlier this month we related the story of a Belgian television crew that was roughed up by thugs in Henan province while covering a story about AIDS patients. As bad as things can be at times for foreign correspondents in China, they are far worse for Chinese reporters. Consider the case of Guan Jian. The Beijing News reported (here via Reuters) that the journalist from a paper called the Network News was shoved into a car in the central province of Shanxi while investigating a possible corruption case. Guan’s family hasn’t heard from him since that incident two weeks ago.

In another recent Shanxi case, a reporter for China Central Television was arrested in Beijing by police from the province. The journalist, Li Min, was accused of taking bribes, but her lawyer says the arrest was ordered by local prosecutors who wanted revenge after she reported the officials had abused their power.

China is not like Iraq, where at least 187 journalists and media workers have been killed since the war started in 2003, or the Philippines or Russia, where reporters pursuing sensitive stories face the risk of being gunned down in the street. But the Middle Kingdom has more journalists in its jails than any other country with 28 out 125 imprisoned worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And implied threats often do the work of actual violence or punishment. The scholar Perry Link describes it as “the anaconda in the chandelier.” He writes:

Questions of risk–how far to go, how explicit to be, with whom to ally, and so on–are moved inside the cerebrums of every individual writer and editor. There are, of course, physical punishments that anchor one’s calculations. If you calculate incorrectly and go too far, you can lose your job, be imprisoned, or, in the worst case, get a bullet in the back of the head. If you live overseas you can run the risk of being cut off from your family and hometown. But most censorship does not directly involve such happenings. It involves fear of such happenings. By “fear” I do not mean a clear and present sense of panic. I mean a dull, well-entrenched leeriness that people who deal with the Chinese censorship system usually get used to, and eventually accept as part of their natural landscape. But the controlling power of this fear is quite effective nonetheless.