Friday, December 19, 2008

Ryan Pyle Blog: "Better Services for Foreign Media" in China


I wanted to share some fine fiction I read in the China Daily just last week. The government has held a press conference indicating that the government officially welcomes more journalists from abroad to cover news events in China. The real slap in the face was that they had the nerve to, in the same breath, mention that they are extending better service and freedom to Chinese journalists as well as foreign journalists. I don't know how anyone who follows my blog feels when they read news like this, but for me - it makes my guts turn.

China is, bar none, one of the most difficult countries to work in as a foreign journalist; and for a Chinese journalist you are essentially taking your life, the life of your family and even close friends, in your hands if you want to publish any kind of investigative reporting. While it's true that the life of a foreign journalist is not in danger, as it is in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and others, it is painstaking at every turn. And that's one of the reasons why a lot of well known photographers actually refuse to accept jobs in China because the bureaucracy and the difficulty of working freely just wares them down too much. All I can say to that is, yes.........yes it does ware you down. In fact, it's down right exhausting. So how are things supposedly changing?

Well, this is the kicker. They aren't really. In the 1990s, from what I've herd, things were really tough for foreign journalists. The country was closed off and there were few foreigners moving around the country at that time, so anyone who wanted to take a quick trip to a remote province was either a journalist or a spy. After the turn of the century things have opened up a lot more. More travelers, better infrastructure and more access to outsiders have created a countryside in China where towns and villages are accessible to travel to. But that doesn't mean that you are free to report from there, in fact, far from it.

Intimidation, confiscation and detention all still exist. You won't have to read too far into my past blogs to find stories about thugs in cars with tinted windows that pull you over and ask for your cameras, all without showing any ID at all. You don't have to travel too far outside of Beijing, or Shanghai, to find a lawless countryside where local officials intimidate and bend laws to get there ways. In fact, just a few weeks ago a report was published in a Chinese newspaper that indicated that government officials were arresting whistle blows of government corruption and sending them to mental hospitals. Their only crime was trying to travel to Beijing to tell officials there how corrupt their county communist party leaders are. And this highlights where the real problem exists: the central government in Beijing as no control over what happens in the rest of the country. A powerful statement, but true.

China has, for centuries, been a provincial place. Emperors have always sat at the head of government in the Middle Kingdom and their influence has been far reaching, but only by bribing and power sharing deals worked out with local warlords. And after a my years in China, having worked in every province, I can tell you that little has changed. In exchange for a show of solidarity and support, the central government has pretty much given a free hand to the provinces to develop at their own will and pace; which in many cases means shocking human rights abuses and complete disregard for even the most basic law.

So what do I think of the news that things will free up? I think it will happen, but not because of any judgement handed down from Beijing. If it happens it'll happen because provincial officials and business men will see the benefit of having some media savvy, and they'll learn some day that intimidating media, and engaging this cat and mouse game only makes all sides bitter; and can often lead to negative reporting.

A journalist who has the time to freely enter a village and speak with all the voices and understand all sides of the story can write a much more objective piece than the journalist who has to sneak in under the cover of night and speak to one or two people and then get chased out by thugs in a Mitsubishi Land Rover; barely escaping to the main expressway which can ferry them to the neighboring province; and hence safety.


Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle