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Archive for the ‘Censorship’ Category

Leave it to me to find the press freedom angle in the genuine tragedy that is unfolding in Sichuan Province.

More than 50,000 people may have died since the magnitude 7.9 earthquake there, and the stories and images that continue to emerge are overwhelming. The story of a collapsed school and the teachers who told their students to stay in the building, thinking it was the safest place they could be, is the one that will stay with me, along with the image of a woman carrying her child down a road with an extraordinary cloud of dust behind her. (there are some incredible photos from the AP, here)

But it is a different set of photographs and an interview with an unnamed official from the “press and publication department” of the city of Chongqing that has me turning once again to a subject I’m sure the Chinese government wishes we would all stop writing about.

But as someone with a framed copy of a Danish editorial cartoon that once caused violent protests in numerous countries and a few dozen angry letters addressed to a student newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, I find myself drawn to these stories.

The cartoon is a reprint of a depiction of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban. It was originally printed in a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten, along with 11 other cartoons of Muhammad. When the cartoons were subsequently reprinted in other newspapers, a large number of Muslims across the globe chose to voice their displeasure by taking to the streets and burning some buildings to the ground. (There’s a great recap of all of this, here)

This, of course, forced just about every newspaper editor in the world to decide whether he, too, should reprint the offending images alongside his paper’s coverage of what had suddenly become a major international news story.

The reason the cartoon now sits in a frame in my bedroom in Bethesda, Maryland is because I was the managing editor of one of the papers that decided to print it. Dozens of angry letters and one campus forum later, The Badger Herald stands by the decision. And the cartoon, which sits above an editorial explaining our decision, will now hang on one of the walls of my apartment in whatever city I might decide to live in when I get back to the States and start writing for newspapers again.

Which brings me to the reason I’m now writing about “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when I really should be writing about the tragic events in Sichuan Province and the heroic response of the Chinese government.

When a hurricane left a major American city flooded, our government’s response was to send a few helicopters in to drop packages of food into the water, and to argue with the state’s governor about whether her request for federal aid had been properly submitted. But when an earthquake hit Sichuan Province, the Chinese government dispatched more than 100,000 soldiers and rescue workers to the area, according to the state-run Xinhua news service, and is ready to spend $160 million on relief efforts.

So why am I writing about press freedom at a time when the Chinese government is truly worthy of praise?

Because a magazine editor at New Travel Weekly made the bizarre decision to run a racy earthquake-themed photo spread and the Chinese government decided to shut the publication down.

And because the reporting of all this introduced me to two very interesting phrases, both of which were used by the Chongqing “press and publication department” to explain why the magazine had to be shut down.

Here’s the department’s explanation in a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

The department said the magazine “seriously violated propaganda discipline and went against social morals” and the report constituted an “extremely evil social influence.”

“If the outcome of the rectification is satisfactory, it is possible to reopen the magazine,” an employee of the press and publication department with the family name Cai said.

“After all, only part of the staff made the decision to print that shoot. It wouldn’t be fair to just close it for good.”

The first phrase is “rectification,” which appears to translate roughly to clean house and find new editors who will print things the government approves of, at which point the offending publication can resume printing until further rectification becomes necessary.

This would explain why the editors of New Travel Weekly have been promptly fired and the unnamed official from the press and publication department believes the magazine may be able to resume publication following its “rectification.”

The second phrase is the one that really jumps out to us Westerners, especially those of us who majored in journalism. When we see the word “propaganda,” we tend to think of things like Nazi Germany and the old Soviet Union and all of the villainous regimes that people insist on comparing to the current Chinese government.

That’s why it’s so jarring when the press and publication department of Chongqing uses a phrase like “propaganda discipline” to explain why it shut down a magazine over a racy photo spread.

I don’t know if that is an official term or an unfortunate translation, and I won’t speculate here. What I do know is the Chinese government really needs to consider rectifying its stance on press freedom. That is, clean house and find new officials who will recognize that it is better to let citizens read about their government than it is to continue the sort of repressive practices you’d prefer they didn’t read about.

In a very real way, the Chinese government has made life exponentially better for a very large number of its citizens over the last three decades. And over the past two weeks, the government has shown its extraordinary capability to come to the aid of its people in times of great need.

But as long as the government continues to shut down magazines, imprison bloggers, and employ scores of internet monitors to block and unblock websites, we will all keep writing about things like “rectification” and “propaganda discipline” when we should be giving China the praise it deserves.

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The Great Firewall

I’m already beginning to feel the effects of China’s internet censorship, and I haven’t even booked my flight out of Bangkok.

Apparently, Blogspot (the site that hosted my travel blog) has been added to an expanding list of websites that are blocked by the Chinese government in what Chinese bloggers have termed, “The Great Firewall.” So I welcome you to my new travel blog (hosted by a site called WordPress, this time), which I can happily access in Shanghai without breaking Chinese law.

I’ve heard one can draw the attention of the censors by using banned words or phrases as well (bloggers have taken to using acronyms for the more popular banned phrases, which has even lead to the banning of certain acronyms), so this blog may one day find itself in the clutches of The Great Firewall, too.

Until then, read and enjoy.

You can read about The Great Firewall here and check out one of the many sites offering advice on how to get around it (notice how the author uses the acronym “GFC” to avoid using a banned term).

An update on the 100-day mourning period: Officially, the mourning period is still in effect for the full 100 days (which will end in mid-April, just in time for the Thai New Year’s festival). But at this point, most people have stopped taking it very seriously.

Music is now being played just about everywhere I’ve been. I just saw Body Slam, one of the biggest bands in Thailand, play a show in a club in Khorat called Living Bar (450 baht for a ticket and three Singhas!), and there was live music playing in Lopburi this weekend and in Khon Kaen the weekend before that. None of those are tourist towns and two of them are in Isaan, so it’s fair to say that the music ban has effectively, if unofficially, been lifted.

The teachers are still wearing black here at Satrichaiyaphum High, though, and that should continue for the full 100 days.

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