Journalism and the Great Firewall of China

Can’t say I didn’t see this coming a mile away – Western journalists in China for the Olympics (gasp!) can’t access certain websites. This despite the International Olympic Committee’s claim that reporters would have unlimited access to the web merely two weeks ago: “For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge. It’s now looking like the IOC is toeing the (Communist) party line, allowing the Chinese government to maintain restricted access to sites which disrupt “social stability” and threaten “national security.” Now, reporters all over the world are crying foul.

Really? The media really thought that China would open up to the West? Were we expecting round 2 of Glasnost here? Please. Don’t act so surprised. This is China we’re talking about. It’s the same authoritarian government that has thrown human rights under the bus since 1949. It’s the same government that enlisted 20,000 “volunteers” to clear an algae field the size of Connecticut which grew in the middle of the Olympic sailing venue. It’s the same country that will claim responsibility for a lack of rain during the Games, due to their mastery of weather control.

There are a number of bad guys in this situation other than the Chinese government. Firstly, this situation has made the IOC look like a bunch of underhanded, deal-cutting, smoky-room-dwelling sellouts. It’s clear that they deliberately deceived the Western media. The Western Internet companies who cooperate with the Chinese government (and all that entails) in order to do business there are unsavory as well. Yahoo! has been under fire for years over its wheeling and dealing with the Chinese, drawing intense ire for its role in the conviction of two dissident bloggers earlier this decade.

But the real issue that emerges from this delicate situation is the fact that organizations like NBC and the BBC are guilty by association of the same kind of disregard for personal freedom that hallmarks modern China. But it’s not as though NBC and the BBC actually intend to be in cahoots with the Chinese government; rather, this is a case of businesses knowing that despite the controversy, they will stay in the black if they keep their mouths shut. For media outlets, it’s easier to stay in the good graces of the IOC (especially given the enormous costs of broadcasting the Games) than to speak up against social injustice. It comes down to controversy vs. status quo. Are outlets like NBC and the BBC aware of their public perception? Of course. But as they deliver a whitewashed and sugarcoated image of China, the world will see a nation that is both painfully backward yet astoundingly modern. It’s a shame that media outlets don’t have the guts to speak up.

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