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'Citizen journalism' battles the Chinese censors

AFP | June 25, 2007

In the strictly controlled media world of communist China, "citizen journalism" is beating a way through censorship, breaking taboos and offering a pressure valve for social tensions.
In one striking example this month, the Internet was largely responsible for breaking open a slave scandal in two Chinese provinces that some local authorities had been complicit in.

A letter posted on the Internet by 400 parents of children working as slaves in brickyards was the trigger for the national press to finally report on the scandal that some rights groups say had been going on for years.

The parents' Internet posting was part of a growing phenomenon for marginalised people in China who can not otherwise have their complaints addressed by the traditional, government-controlled press.

"The phenomenon of 'citizen journalism' suddenly arrived several years ago," said Beijing-based dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was one of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

"Since the appearance of blogs in particular, every blog is a new platform for the spread of information."

He cited the example of a couple in the southwestern city of Chongqing who became known as the "Stubborn Nails" in April because they refused to leave their home until they received adequate compensation from the property developer who wanted them out.

They quickly became household names in China -- and symbols of resistance against greedy land developers and corrupt local authorities -- mainly thanks to Internet postings.


"That case was first revealed through blogs," Liu said.

Also in Chongqing, parts of the city were this month set on fire following the beating of flower sellers by the "chengguan", city police charged with "cleaning up" the city's roads.

Witnesses to the beatings had appealed to local television journalists, but nothing was broadcast.

The incident only became known outside the city thanks to photos and stories published on the Internet, sparking anger among China's netizens.

"It's fascism," said one, while another mocked: "The inhabitants of Chongqing are truly naive, the Chinese media is all controlled by the Communist Party, they decide what people know."

Several days later, another blunder by the "chengguan" -- this time in Zhengzhou in central Henan province, again targeted at a street seller -- provoked further riots.

The image of protesters surrounding a police car, captured by a mobile phone, made its way round the world, after being posted on Chinese movie sharing site Tudou, then reposted on YouTube.

Elsewhere across China, protesters often seek to post photos or videos of unrest on the Internet to counter the versions from the state-run press and local authorities, who usually downplay or deny the events.

Recognising the threat of China's growing online community, Chinese President Hu Jintao called in January for the Internet to be "purified", and the government has since launched a number of online crackdowns.

"The department of propaganda has sent out regulations to try and control the opinions being spread on the Internet, but every citizen has the right to criticise or to take part in public affairs on the Internet," said Zhu Dake, a professor at Shanghai Tongji University.

"The government has to accept the criticisms of the people, it can no longer react crudely like in the past."

Julien Pain, who monitors Internet freedom issues for Reporters Without Borders, is less optimistic.

"One cannot truly say that the Internet in China is becoming more and more free, because at the same time as the development of citizen journalists, the government finds ways of blocking or censoring content," Pain said.

Reporters Without Borders, which labels the Chinese government an "enemy of the Internet," says about 50 cyber dissidents are currently behind bars in China.

 

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