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Media Faces Uphill Battle in China

China’s Open Door policy has a notable exception when it comes to overseas media. NTDTV, one such media outlet, is finding out just how closed the door is.

In its march toward socio-economic reform, China seems to still fear one tool of a modern, open society: an independent media. Chinese media is strictly controlled and regulated by the government. International news agencies operating within China are on constant alert that their broadcast signals will be interrupted or blocked whenever something unfavorable happens to the Chinese Communist Party or whenever news occurs that the government doesn’t want the Chinese people to know about.

As global media vie for the huge Chinese market and accommodate government control, some have used the strategy of "self-censorship, self-restriction" to trade for limited access to China. According to Time Asia, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has gone so far as to pay for a part-time advisor to CCTV International’s 24-hour English news channel in order to improve the image of the Mainland propaganda machine. CCTV International is just one offshoot of the massive, global Chinese Central Television operation, which manages 12 different channels.

China’s chokehold on the media has earned it dubious recognition as one of the 10 worst places in the world to be a journalist. In bestowing the "honor," the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted that in 2003, President Hu Jintao’s government "arrested high-profile editors, closed publications, and imposed news blackouts on politically sensitive events." Among the high profile arrests were three editors from Southern Metropolis News who were arrested earlier this year, soon after the paper published news of the reappearance of SARS in Guangdong province. As of May 3, World Press Freedom Day, China had 41 journalists imprisoned, "making it the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row," according to the CPJ.

China’s intimidation of journalists is not limited to the mainland. Four of Hong Kong’s most popular talk show hosts recently resigned due to concerns over individual and family safety. Some cited death threats. The first was Albert Cheng, host of "Teacup in a Storm." He spoke about death threats and abruptly left Hong Kong for Europe on May 2. Then, Raymond Wong, who received a message warning him of "extermination by patriotic forces," and Allen Lee, Cheng’s replacement on the program, both resigned.

Independent media organizations do not fare well either in China, witness the experience of the New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television, or NTDTV. Founded by Chinese Americans, NTDTV is the first independent, non-profit Chinese-language television station. NTDTV has blazed a new, though arduous, path to China by beaming its programming directly to Chinese households via satellite. The difficulty it has experienced provides a case study worth watching.

Challenges to the New Launch

Since May 1 of this year, NTDTV has been accessible to satellite dish owners in China and other Asian areas through transmission on the W-5 satellite by the Paris-based Eutelsat. China’s control of satellite signal access is tighter than its control of individual dish ownership. NTDTV viewers can pick up reliable, good-quality signals with 60-90 cm satellite dishes in the southern part of Liaoning Province and the heavily populated eastern region of Gansu Province.
On June 9, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that the Foreign Ministry of France had confirmed that China had contacted it about NTDTV. China claimed that France’s Supreme Audiovisual Council (CSA) should deal with the issue independently. The CSA, which issued a broadcast license to NTDTV on March 30th of this year, told AFP that it had not been contacted by the French Foreign Ministry about the station.

NTDTV spokeswoman Carrie Hung thinks this is a test case for freedom of expression in China. "We know that the Chinese ambassador and diplomats have been meeting with the French government and with our commercial partner Eutelsat," she said. "We’re concerned that the broadcast will be cut off due to Beijing’s pressure."

According to Reporters Without Borders, the Netherlands-based satellite operator New Skies Satellites (NSS) had begun broadcasting NTDTV on an open signal to Asia on July 1, 2003. But just three days after the start of the broadcasts, under Beijing’s threat of financial retaliation, NSS encrypted the signal, thus preventing Chinese satellite dish owners from seeing the channel. NSS’ contract with NTDTV was terminated on May 1, 2004, after prolonged financial and political pressure from Beijing.

Similarly, at the start of 2004, Philippines satellite operator Mabuhay cancelled plans to transmit a special Chinese New Year broadcast after threats from the Chinese ambassador in Manila.

Tighter Control

About 40-to-60 million households in China have limited access to satellite broadcasts from abroad but the Chinese Department of Television and Broadcasting limits foreign satellite broadcasts to the Pearl River Delta, foreign residence complexes, and some hotels for foreigners.

When it came to license renewals for foreign broadcasters this year, the Department of Television and Broadcasting revised its rules to make foreign TV stations assume all responsibility and bear any losses in case of conflicts with Chinese media control policy. The clause is so vague that many media organizations have delayed renewing out of confusion and fear of unlimited responsibility and revenue loss from commercials if their broadcasts were cut.

Beijing’s Anxiety

According to NTDTV, its Chinese-language programs reach about 200 million viewers around the world. They say they dare to report the truth about China, including what Beijing tries by all means to cover up. NTDTV was the first Chinese-language media to report about SARS. While viewers of CCTV who believed its falsified reports were later shocked by the facts when they went to China, viewers of NTDTV had learned the truth about the epidemic. NTDTV also reports about the persecution of labor union organizers, religious groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and pro-democracy advocates.
Ironically, the free flow of information could benefit China’s reform and opening up process in the long run. Independent satellite broadcasts into China can help broaden people’s outlook, provide accurate economic and political information, and promote universal values for Chinese people, especially those in business and government, who may make a positive contribution to China’s plans and policies.

Terrence Chen, MBA, is a Washington DC based analyst who closely follows issues regarding the media in China.