As China’s state-run media works to boost its presence overseas, it is facing increasing competition from commercial media and citizen journalists who are providing more credible content than that disseminated by the government, award-winning journalist Yuen Ying Chan said at a recent lecture in Tokyo.

Chan, director and professor of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University, described how the Internet and other technologies are making it increasingly difficult for the government to suppress information that could threaten the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

“While the media in China are developing very fast, the control by the government is also being stepped up,” Chan said at the Japan National Press Club in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Tuesday. One example is the government’s ongoing censorship of the unrest in Egypt, she said. Keyword searches on microblogs produce no results on the subject.

But the blackouts aren’t entirely comprehensive, Chan said, noting there are many people who will “climb the great fire wall” to access censored information.

“Chinese journalists, if they are allowed to do their work, can do very good work,” she said, mentioning Sichuan Television’s coverage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which won the Peabody Award in 2008.

Chan said China’s sophistication in using technical means to filter the Internet and control information has been pressuring outspoken journalists, such as veteran columnist and editor Zhang Ping, to censor themselves. Ping was reportedly forced to resign from the Guangzhou-based Southern Media Group for his frank commentaries.

“This is only one of the examples of Chinese journalists being under pressure, who are censored, who are fired and who are banned from writing. There have been many more similar cases recently,” Chan said.

As other examples of the crackdown, Chan explained how China’s central propaganda bureau routinely sends notices to media outlets telling them what to and not to cover.

The latest notice, which was leaked online, gave instructions on news coverage for 2011. It instructs media companies not to report on fatal accidents involving less than 10 deaths and to “be careful” when covering public protests over property seizures and demolitions resulting from government and commercial land development, one of the hottest issues in China.

Chan said that while she expected censorship to escalate in the runup to the 2012 Communist Party Congress, which may decide the successors to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, it is ironic to see the government simultaneously pushing state media to expand their influence internationally.

For example, last August, the government-backed China Media Capital took controlling shares in three TV stations owned by media giant Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which “signified a defeat for Rupert Murdoch’s investment in China.”

Chan said the Chinese government has been building an investment war chest to support and expand its state-run media outlets — Xinhua news agency, Central China TV (CCTV), and the China Daily — to boost its “soft power,” shape international perceptions and promote its own news agenda.

Xinhua, for example, launched a TV network last year, becoming the first Chinese news agency with its own TV station. The other state-run networks are also trying to expand their coverage and image. CCTV is even hiring non-Chinese not only as copy editors, but as newscasters as well.

China hosted the 2009 World Media Summit, drawing leaders from newspapers, wire services, TV and other media to Beijing to discuss the challenges and opportunities being presented by the digital age.

Despite the government’s efforts to strengthen its grip on the media, however, Chan said the majority of the news online is being generated by individuals who, equipped with nothing but a cell phone and Internet connection, are actively showing their potential as citizen journalists.

In the face of these crackdowns, citizen journalists and bloggers are actively providing difficult-to-obtain information, Chan said. One notorious case, dubbed “My father is Li Gang,” blew the cover off a fatal traffic accident in October in which the son of a government official struck and killed a female student at Hebei University with his car. To evade the legal fallout, the man invoked the name of his father, a ranking local official, in an attempt to get the police to drop the case.

Although the Communist Party tried to suppress reports on the incident, the case created an uproar online, eventually leading to his arrest last month.

The case shows that citizen-generated news, as well as stories written by prominent journalists, such as investigative journalist Wang Keqin, whose blog has over a million followers online, are becoming a force to be reckoned with, and one that’s becoming increasingly difficult for the government to suppress.

“The Internet and microblogs are powerful tools in China,” she said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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