One of the reasons why, on the whole, democracies are more likely to have a better capacity to address acute economic crises such as the current global one is free flow of information. Only open exchange of ideas and vigorous debate on solutions can enhance the odds that not necessarily perfect but nonetheless the best thought-out policy response will be produced. What about countries where freedom of speech is severely curtailed? This is the Chinese approach:
Increasingly worried about a sickly economy sowing social unrest, the Chinese government is tightening state control over the media. Its main aim appears to be to smother dissemination of politically sensitive discussions and information on the Internet.
The government is particularly concerned with a document circulating online called Charter 08, which was released on December 10 on the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alluding to Czechoslovakia’s famous Charter 77, it has been signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and even some government officials calling for sweeping democratic reforms in China. At the same time, protests against the authoritarian rule in the economic sphere are also on the rise around the country
Belarus has been flying under the radar lately, but reforms are not standing still. Following a secret ballot, the parliament passed a new legislation in the first reading that will give the goverment greater control over media.
Civil society has several issues with the law as its been written up, but primarily it is that the law gives the government the right to shut down a media outlet after the first warning – one mistake and your are out!
Others have complained that the law would also apply to online media – and the Internet is the only place in Belarus where alternative voices are heard. The explanation is simple
However, Liliya Ananich, first deputy information minister, said in May that her ministry favored a registration requirement for online media outlets, as “there is a problem of disinformation flows” from abroad. According to Ananich, such a problem has been successfully tackled by China, “which has cut off access to its territory for such sites.”
The law also gives the government a right to punish those media outlets that distribute false information that causes damage to the public. This is something the government has already addressed in the past (for example by passing a law that includes criminal prosecution of discrediting the country).
The problem of course is that in a weak rule of law climate who is to say what is a false piece of information and how can you dispute accusations?
In many emerging markets, new rules to control the media are sometimes well-reasoned, but the implementation of those laws more often than not has a political context (i.e. punishing the opposition rather than ensuring freedom of information). Figuring out how to beef up voluntary ethical standards within media may be an alternative to restricting laws and regulations. An alternative that I doubt the government of Belarus will consider…
As China’s dynamic economic growth transforms many aspects of the daily life, more and more incongruities arise between the forces of modernization and greater openness of the Chinese society, and the official communist state ideology. The two are increasingly coming to a clash in the country’s universities. Beijing’s renowned Tsinghua University – one of the most prestigious Chinese schools – is a good example of the difficulties in applying old philosophy to new realities.
The university’s website proclaims that “Tsinghua has retained its character and charm [since the founding over 90 years ago] while promoting rigorous scholarship research, ensuring academic and educational prestige in China and abroad.” At the same time, its recently founded Research Center on Marxist Journalism and Journalistic Education Reform champions the concept of “Marxist journalism.” Understood as journalism that the government views as improving society, it was introduced by the Party in 2001 but sounds more like something from the days of the Cultural Revolution. The Washington Post comments:
The center has in its first year of operation become a vivid example of the tension between China’s rush toward modernization and the Communist Party’s insistence on retaining control over the flow of information. Journalism students at Tsinghua are taught not only about Watergate and the rise of the Internet, but also about the restricted role reporters are expected to play under a Marxist government such as China’s. In China, that role traditionally has been to support the government by spreading propaganda and suppressing news that contradicts policy or puts officials in a bad light. But as the country has opened to the world in the last three decades, many journalists — and journalism students and their professors–have acquired new ambitions for their craft, such as investigative reporting on official corruption.
Taking a course in Marxist journalism may be a good career move, since – as one of the students commented – the mainstream media are more likely to hire someone “with a good sense of Marxism.” But can censorship under one-party rule done in the name of “guiding public opinion” really be reconciled with the need for journalistic integrity in reporting? And can fostering rigorous scholarship and academic excellence be reconciled with teaching how to restrict freedom of the media?