Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Times Gets Its Digs (Well Done)

At least one right-wing blogger thinks this editorial in the New York Times about press restrictions in China is really a veiled dig at the Bush administration and its right-wing supporters for the attacks, accusations, and threats that followed the Times's publication of an article about a secret money-tracking program that the Bush administration put into place in defiance of Congress's lawmaking function. The Times was assaulted for its "traitorous" decision to publish an article about a program the government did not want the public to know about.

Here's the editorial:

News has always been a tough nut for Communist dictators. It happens unexpectedly, giving bureaucrats precious little time to prepare the correct ideological explanation; it often undermines whatever propaganda line the state is pushing, and if it happens to involve embarrassing events like riots, strikes, accidents or outbreaks of disease, it can make the party bosses look less than perfect.

The Soviet Union dealt with the problem with the infamous Article 70 of the penal code, which basically defined anything the state didn't want people to hear as "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." Now China proposes to take the art of censorship a step higher with a bill that would severely fine news media outlets if they report on "sudden incidents" without prior authorization.

"Sudden incidents" sounds awfully similar to what most of the world knows better as "breaking news," and in most countries it's considered a core function of the news media.

The trouble with suppressing reports of sudden incidents is that they usually emerge anyway, in a form even more damaging to the state. That happened when the Soviet Union tried to play down the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago; China's cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 only made the outbreak of the disease more severe.

The draft law says that newspapers, magazines, Web sites and television stations would face fines up to $12,500 each time they published information about a sudden incident "without authorization." It is, of course, a horrible idea that strips away any pretense China might have of political openness or modernity.

This Independence Day seems like a good day to point out that no country does itself any credit when it tries to control the free flow of news. In the case of China, it's also probably futile. Nothing produces the cachet and credibility that censorship does, and the Internet has made the job of controlling information far more difficult. Billing a story as an "unauthorized sudden incident" could become the Chinese equivalent of the old, seductive "banned in Boston."

Or, billing a story as "classified for national security reasons" could become the American equivalent of the new Chinese "unauthorized sudden incident."

Either way, if Bush supporters are angry about the subtext of this editorial, they have only themselves to blame. It's not the New York Times's fault if there is an uncanny parallelism between the U.S. government's and Chinese government's reactions to unauthorized newspaper articles.

No comments: