At a forum of senior South Korean and Chinese journalists in Seoul late last month, the comments made by Chinese reporters about North Koreas sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan almost echoed the official line of Chinese state-run media. They repeatedly stressed in unison the lack of perfect evidence proving the Norths guilt in the incident. A senior member of a major Chinese media organization reiterated an Internet rumor that a sea mine deployed by South Korea in the Cold War era might have exploded. This comment is perfectly in line with Beijings official position. South Korean journalists attending the forum realized the limits of socialist state-run media.
Nearly 500 retired Chinese Communist Party officials and intellectuals, including a former secretary to Mao Zedong, a former president of the Peoples Daily, and a former vice president of Xinhua News Agency, have publicly urged freedom of the press. Since imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, a small number of Chinese intellectuals are making their voices of conscience heard.
In a letter posted on a foreign Internet site, they said Chinas constitution, which was revised in 1982, guarantees freedom of the press and demonstrations, but the clause has not been enforced over the past 28 years. They also accused Beijing of gagging Chinese media to prevent the reporting of Premier Wen Jiabaos calls for reforming the Chinese political system, suggesting a rift of opinion within Beijings power elite.
In the U.S. Freedom Houses evaluation of media freedom last year, China ranked 37th of 40 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and its media was categorized not free. (North Korea earned the lowest ranking, while South Korea was dubbed a free media nation at No. 14). When sudden acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in 2003, Chinese media failed to report the epidemic for more than two weeks due to government pressure, aggravating the situation. Beijing eventually showed signs of change after a barrage of international criticism. Government control of media in China, however, remains nearly the same as shown by the controversy over Internet censorship early this year.
In a society where the media is censored, creative and critical thinking is impossible. Critics say China is adept at making counterfeit or copycat products but cannot develop innovative technology surpassing those of advanced economies. Media freedom that allows the accurate reporting of facts and provision of the grounds for free public discussion is a barometer of a democracy. In any country, neither democracy nor sustainable prosperity is possible without freedom of the press.
Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (firstname.lastname@example.org)