Panel discusses Chinese journalism, government censorship

Micro-blogging websites offer uncensored information, glimpse behind bureaucracy's secrecy


A panel of international journalists met Friday in Clark Hall to discuss the role technology plays in combatting news censorship policies in China. The panelists highlighted the reporting challenges faced by international correspondents and Chinese journalists.

The discussion, entitled “Covering China in the Age of Information,” was moderated by Charles Laughlin, director of the East Asia Center, and included panelists Melissa Chan, the John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, Isaac Stone Fish, the associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine and Susan Jakes, the editor of the Asia Society’s ChinaFile blog.

In the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, because of pressures from the international community, journalists faced fewer constraints, Chan said. But progress has since halted, she added.

Non-Chinese foreign correspondents enjoy relative security, Fish said, but their sources and Chinese counterparts often do not. “You’re there, you’re protected, but its very easy for you to burn your sources — for you to endanger the people you talk to,” he said.

Because of the risk news sources face, it is difficult for foreign journalists to hear people’s genuine opinions, Jakes said. Instead reporters must find these opinions in certain corners of the web.

“One of the interesting things about these micro-blogging sites is that they can give us access … to people’s unvarnished thoughts about all kinds of different topics,” Jakes said. “[It] provides a kind of window to life in China.”

These micro-blogging sites, such as the popular Weibo, are censored, which results in “a cat and mouse game” between users and censors. “Sometimes you can read things for a few minutes and then they just disappear,” Jakes said. But these posts — if seen during the brief time before censoring — provide invaluable leads on news stories, panelists agreed.

The advent of image attachments, which are harder to censor than text, has furthered the ability for news stories to reach readers in China. One site, WeiboScope, selects 40-50 of the most popular stories and posts them in the form of image attachments, rather than the original text versions..

“There is some stuff that is really pushing the envelope in terms of sensitivity [on WeiboScope] and [reading the site] is a good way to keep your thumb on the pulse of public discourse in China today,” Laughlin said.

Recently, the debate about the extent of government censorship has become heated. Laughlin suggested the situation in China is getting better, but Fish disagreed, crediting Weibo, and not changes in government sentiment, with the evolution of news reporting and transparency. “A lot of this was able to come out through Weibo, so we have more information that way, but it’s not that the government is allowing more,” Fish said.

The panel was cosponsored by the University’s East Asia Center, Asia Institute, Department of Media Studies and Virginia East Asia society along with the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

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