By Benjamin Cost
In the surprising 2011/2012 Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, China almost skirts the bottom at number 174 out of 179 possible spots. This places them one measly notch higher than Iran (175), who is just coming off the 2009/2010 election protest involving rampant violence between the media and government, and 22 places below Iraq – the country responsible for the most reporter killings (151) in the last two decades. In an equally frightening bit of trivia, just two years ago the same slot was occupied by North Korea! Reporters Without Borders states:
This year, they [Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea] are immediately preceded at the bottom by Syria, Iran and China, three countries that seem to have lost contact with reality as they have been sucked into an insane spiral of terror, and by Bahrain and Vietnam, quintessential oppressive regimes. Other countries such as Uganda and Belarus have also become much more repressive.
But is this near vilification of China’s freedom of the press policies justified or a tad overblown?
Netizens seem to agree with the latter, especially when concerning the government’s relatively lax stance on Weibo, blogs, and the internet in general:
Many netizens questioned China’s place in the rankings because they felt Weibo, China’s Twitter, provides a relatively free forum. One wrote, “[It seems] Weibo has ruined the Ministry of Propaganda’s efforts.” Another netizen tweeted, “[The ranking] is basically accurate; good thing we have the Internet (even with the firewall).” Another demanded, “China should have moved up! Because netizens know so much more than they used to.”
While a majority felt the rankings were accurate, they appeared to reserve much of their scorn for China’s tightly managed traditional media, and not the Internet. One netizen resorted to sarcasm: “The Ministry of Propaganda has been working for years [on censorship]. After all its diligent hard work, the Celestial Dynasty is not ranked last? How is this [expletive] fair?”
Clearly, Chinese netizens’ views of government censorship aren’t exactly on par with “an insane spiral of terror” or “losing contact with reality” (phrases which kind’ve detract from the supposed impartiality of the index’s rankings). Sure part of it stems from the fact that your average Chinese citizen has a different outlook on what constitutes oppression of the media. According to netizens, many Chinese believe that “freedom of speech is a myth.”
But despite discrepancies between Western and Chinese standards of press freedom, Chinese citizens have been granted surprising leeway in voicing their government-directed opinions through the web – something the index has all but overlooked or ignored.
Just take a look at their lambasting of the government report that surfaced after the Wenzhou bullet train crash in December; one that allegedly scapegoated random rail officials. Or how about their forthcoming criticism of the government’s donation of 23 schoolbuses to Macedonia in the wake of a school bus accident that claimed the lives of 19 preschoolers. Would all the governments of the countries ranking higher than China on the index be so tolerable of such accusations?
While Weibo is not technically a news source, it is undeniably changing the game on what is acceptable to put into print in China. So until Reporters Without Borders examines this facet of Chinese media (if anybody understands the point system they use to determine a country’s “freeness” level, please let us know), they shouldn’t be so quick to toss China’s or any other country’s name in the mud.