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China's government is under fire for new rules which critics say could limit freedom of information. The rules would limit reporters' coverage of court cases and other breaking news. Ironically, some of the measures were intended to insure freedom of information.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN: This week, the cabinet level State Council Information Office held a press conference on transparency in government. The briefing ended in a media scrum.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
KUHN: Chinese and foreign reporters surrounded the communist party official who had just spoken. They peppered him with questions about a high level corruption case in Shanghai. Don't ask such questions, he scolded, as he struggled out of the briefing room.
This is a change for China. Only two decades ago, a government press conference here meant that officials summoned reporters to a ministry, read them a statement, and then left without answering any questions.
Wang Gueqing is deputy director of the State Council Information Office. Over the past three years, Wang's office has released the names and phone numbers of spokespersons in most cabinet ministries and local governments. One notable exception is the military.
Mr. WANG GUEQING (State Council Information Office): (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: All the parliaments of the party, the cabinet and local governments see the spokesperson in press briefing systems as an important part of governance, he says.
They also see it as an effective way of making government more transparent. Wang admits that transparency is a distant goal. He's also warned that just because the government now has spokesmen, that doesn't mean that nobody else can talk to the press.
But this month, China's supreme court issued a rule saying just that. It bars judges and court staff, other than spokespersons, from giving unauthorized interviews. Zhan Jiang is head of the Media Studies Department at the China Youth University for Political Science in Beijing. He says he doesn't want to see trial by media or political interference with the courts.
Professor ZHAN JIANG (China Youth University for Political Science): (Through translator) As long as the courts decide on these restrictions based on the needs of their judicial work, then I think these restrictions are necessary. What we're concerned about is that these restrictions aren't coming from the courts themselves.
KUHN: In May, the government warned lawyers that they could face punishment for divulging information about politically sensitive cases, especially to foreign journalists. Also this month, foreign news wires cried foul when Beijing gave the official Xinhua News Agency control over the distribution of foreign news wire reports in China.
In July, China's legislature began debating a draft law requiring officials to release information about riots, disasters and other breaking news. But officials tacked on provisions that would fine journalists up to $12,500 for unauthorized reporting on such events. The state council's Wang Gueqing says the media simply focused on the draft bill's downside.
Mr. GUEQING: (Speaking foreign language)
KUHN: The media overlooked the main premise of this law, he says. The premise is that government must disclose information in a timely manner. What's the law for? It's to restrict the government, not the press.
But Chinese journalists generally agree that these measures represent a tightening of controls over the media. Li Datong is an editor at the China Youth Daily newspaper.
Mr. LI DATONG (China Youth Daily Newspaper): (Through translator) The party is laying down a general policy directive. The reasons are the 17th Communist Party Congress next year and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The regime doesn't want to see anything outside their control in the next two years. They have no other means to achieve this except strong arm tactics.
KUHN: Media analysts say that until China's political climate lightens up, attempts at building institutions that guarantee civil rights may instead produce results that restrict them.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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