II. Background: Longstanding Constraints on Media Freedom in China

The development of a free media in China is critical to providing its 1.3 billion citizens with a realistic understanding of the challenges facing their rapidly transforming society as state control of some aspects of economic and social life steadily loosens. A free media is critical to the ability of the Chinese people to exercise their fundamental rights of expression and to be fully informed about developments in their society—be they political, social, economic, or environmental—that have direct bearing on their lives.

International Standards of Media Freedom

Freedom of the press is a fundamental principle of international human rights law. The media play a crucial role in exposing abuses of power, human rights violations, corporate malfeasance, and medical and environmental crises, thus helping to ensure that the public is informed, that abuses are halted, that criminal perpetrators face justice, and that victims can seek redress. Pivotal international instruments place great emphasis on the importance of a free press, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19.2),7 a key human rights treaty that China has signed but not ratified.

The most detailed exposition of the rights and responsibilities of journalists and a free media is found in the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War.8 Among other things, the Declaration calls for:

- a free flowing and better-balanced dissemination of information (Article I)

- public access to information, “Thus enabling each individual to check the accuracy of facts and to appraise events objectively.” (Article. II.2)

- journalists’ freedom to report (Article II.2)

- protection for journalists “guaranteeing them the best conditions for the exercise of their profession.” (Article II.4)

- a free media as a tool in human rights education: “The mass media have an essential role to play in the education of young people in a spirit of peace,

- justice, freedom, mutual respect and understanding, in order to promote human rights, equality of rights as between all human beings and all nations, and economic and social progress. Equally, they have an important role to play in making known the views and aspirations of the younger generation. (Article IV).

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China incorporates the spirit of the importance that the international community ascribes to media freedom through Article 35, which guarantees “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Comprehensive Censorship and Control of the Chinese Media

The decades-old system of stringent government control over domestic media, effectively rendering the bulk of China’s media news content components of a vast national propaganda system, remains mostly untouched by the “reform and opening” initiated by former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Domestic news content in China is painstakingly filtered through outright censorship of material deemed objectionable by the Communist Party and a web of rules and regulations that strictly limit the reporting scope of journalists. Chinese journalists are also given financial incentives to maintain this status quo.9

7 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A(III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976. The importance of media freedom is reflected also in regional treaties—the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 10.1); the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Article 9.1); the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 13.1); and the Inter-American Democratic Charter (Article 3)—although none covering the Asia region.

8 Proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO at its 20th session in Paris, November 28, 1978.

9 Human Rights Watch World Report 2007, China- Restrictions on Freedom of Expression, January 11, 2007,