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Friday, Oct. 16, 2009

Summit highlights media problems in China


HONG KONG — It seems that almost every week brings new signs of China's rise, with a commensurate increase in its international influence and soft power as well as in its economic, political and military clout.

Last week saw Beijing hosting an unprecedented international media summit, attended by most of the world's media empires, such as News Corporation, the Associated Press, Reuters, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Turner Broadcasting System and Google.

The World Media Summit was hosted by the Xinhua News Agency. Altogether, 300 media representatives from more than 170 media outlets and 40 countries met to discuss the challenges faced by the industry.

The fact that major Western media companies flocked to attend an international conference held in Beijing and hosted by Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, speaks volumes about the changes that have taken place in recent years.

To be sure, that does not mean that Western media organizations have compromised their principles. In fact, a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the conference voiced the hope that "media organizations around the world will provide accurate, objective, impartial and fair coverage of the world's news events, and promote transparency and accountability of governments and public institutions."

It also called on media organizations to "promote transparency and accountability of governments and public institutions" and facilitate understanding as well as exchange of views and ideas among different countries.

While media companies made clear their interest in cooperating with China, the problems of the Chinese press were highlighted by the international organization Reporters Without Borders, which issued a statement to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1.

"Reporters Without Borders would like to participate in this anniversary in its own way," the statement said. "The past 60 years have been difficult for journalists as the Maoist regime wanted to turn the media into nothing more than propaganda tools. Journalists and bloggers nowadays are no longer locked in a totalitarian grip, but the censorship has never stopped. The Communist Party continues to exercise direct control over the news agency Xinhua, newspapers such as People's Daily, and the national broadcaster CCTV."

The executives attending the World Media Summit were, of course, much more diplomatic in their presentations. Even so, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corporation, called on China to "compete in the marketplace of ideas" and to allow a more open media sector.

Similarly, David Schlesinger, editor in chief of Reuters, called for "openness, transparency and accountability," which, he said, "may lead to momentary discomfort and sometimes embarrassment" but which are "a precondition for a truly healthy, stable and successful system."

While the conference was to discuss the future of the media, there was much interest in the situation of foreign journalists working in China. There has been some relaxation since the Beijing Olympics last summer, but the situation is still far from ideal.

Three journalists working for the Japanese news agency Kyodo were attacked in their hotel room by plainclothes men while covering a rehearsal for the 60th anniversary celebrations.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a keynote address at the opening of the conference, pledged to protect the rights of international news organizations reporting in China: "We will continue to make government affairs public, enhance information distribution, safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of foreign news organizations and reporters, and facilitate foreign media coverage of China in accordance with China's laws and regulations."

News coverage of China has exploded in recent years as China's global role has expanded. Hu acknowledged that the foreign media had played an "important role" in telling the world about the changes in China and called on the media to promote world peace.

Beijing has become much more sophisticated in recent years about how the media can help project Chinese influence around the world. It has announced plans to set up media companies that will compete with the world's media giants, including News Corporation and Time Warner.

Hopefully, in the process, it will understand the need to loosen its control over the media.

The effort to project Chinese soft power is going on even in remote corners of the world. Only last month, state-owned CCTV began Russian-language broadcasts in Kyrgyzstan.

China's increasing exposure to the international media as well as its own growing media presence is a trend that reflects the country's growing importance. Hopefully, as time goes on, it will internalize the values of the global media rather than just see the media as a propaganda tool to serve the interests of the government.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.ching@gmail.com)


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