Call for press freedom in China

Retired officials from the Chinese Communist Party on Wednesday called on the government to ensure the freedom of speech in China as guaranteed under the Constitution, amid increasing fears of growing restrictions on the media.

A letter, signed by 23 retired officials who once headed branches of the Party's media apparatus, including Li Rui, the once influential secretary of Mao Zedong, said the freedom of speech, enshrined under the 1982 Constitution, was being restricted by a number of rules and regulations.

It even pointed to recent censorship in China of Premier Wen Jiabao's comments in recent months on political reform, which were not reported in the local media.

“Not even the nation's Premier has freedom of publication,” said the letter. “This kind of false democracy of affirming in principle and denying in actuality is a scandal in the history of democracy.”

The letter comes days after groups of activists pushing for political reform received a boost with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a political activist. He is currently serving an 11-year jail term for “subverting State power” by writing a series of articles criticising the Communist Party.

The signatories of the letter stressed the timing was incidental, and had nothing to do with Mr. Liu's case. Wang Yongcheng, a retired professor at Shanghai's Jiaotong University who authored the letter, told the Associated Press the letter had been drafted several days before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Mr. Liu. He said the authors decided to leave Mr. Liu's case out of the letter fearing it would be blocked by the government.

The former officials called for the Party's Central Propaganda Department, which it described as “an invisible black hand”, to review its policies. “For their own reason, they violate our Constitution, often ordering by telephone that works of such and such a person cannot be published, or that such and such event cannot be reported in the media,” said the letter.

The department routinely sends instructions to news media in China — often, two or three faxes a day — instructing them on what they can and cannot report on. For sensitive issues, the department directs media to only follow reports from the State-run Xinhua news agency.

Failure to do so results in fines, and even closure on occasion. Retired officials often hold influence among the ruling crop of Communist Party officials. But it remains unlikely whether the appeal from the 23 retired officials will effect any changes, coming against the trend of a tightening up of restrictions on the media and civil society.

In recent days, following the Nobel announcement, a number of activists in Beijing and Shanghai have been placed under effective house arrest. Mr. Liu's wife, Liu Xia, said in messages on the social messaging website Twitter that her mobile phone had been disabled by the authorities, and she was “effectively under house arrest.” She said on Tuesday it remained unlikely she would be able to receive the prize, on her husband's behalf, in December, and called for a retrial of Mr. Liu's case.

“This seems like the worst time in the past 20 years for civil society in China,” Fan Yafeng, a legal activist and scholar formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Hindu in a telephone interview, shortly after he said he was forcibly detained by more than 20 policemen. He said he was pushed into a police car while trying to leave his home to celebrate Mr. Liu's award with another lawyer.

“After the Nobel Peace Prize came to China, the situation for lawyers, activists and intellectuals has become worse,” he said.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 8:56:35 PM |

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