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This just in ... censored

July 09, 2006

THE MEDIA AND THE GOVERNMENT might occasionally bump heads in the United States over issues like newspaper reports on secret anti-terrorism programs, but it could be a lot worse. In China, the National People's Congress is on the verge of approving a law that would forbid the media from reporting on breaking news without permission from government officials.

The draft law plumbs new depths of censorship even in China, already among the most regressive countries when it comes to press freedoms. It would impose fines of up to $12,500 on media operations that publish reports on "sudden incidents" without authorization -- terminology so vague it could apply to just about any news event. The law targets stories that are false or "damaging to the social order," empowering local government apparatchiks to suppress pretty much anything they find embarrassing.

The draft law is particularly unusual in that, apparently, it would target foreign as well as domestic media. Though reporters for papers such as The Times are closely monitored, the government seldom tries to censor stories meant for outside consumption. Yet an official involved in preparing the legislation recently said he thought it should apply to all news organizations operating in China.

Beijing is trying to keep a tight rein on a fast-changing society. The country's rapid development is aided by new technologies, wider access to information and higher education standards, all of which its communist leadership promotes and fears simultaneously. Hence the occasional impulse for such clumsy clampdowns. The good news is that Internet access is so widespread as to make censorship difficult.

The "sudden incidents" Beijing is most worried about are outbreaks of civil unrest in the countryside. Then there are all sorts of events that could undermine the people's faith in their government's competence. China's suppression of news on the outbreak of SARS in 2003 contributed to the spread of the disease, attracted international condemnation and triggered pledges of greater openness. More recently, Beijing's attempt to cover up news of an industrial accident that spilled toxins into the Songhua River prompted a confrontation with Russia and led to a public outcry against government censorship.

If there's a silver lining to this naked attempt at repression, it's that China's media and public are strongly resisting it. Newspaper editors in the south have been surprisingly outspoken in their opposition, something that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Sooner or later, China's leaders will learn that now that the genie of free speech and thought has been let out of the bottle, there's no putting it back in.

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