Boycott campiagn against China's state media
The Straits Times[Wednesday, January 14, 2009 11:10]
JAN 14 – A group of Chinese intellectuals – many of whom are signatories of the Charter 08 campaign demanding democratic reforms – has called for a boycott of China's state television news programmes, which they termed “low-grade propaganda”.

An open letter the group issued this week said China Central Television (CCTV) has turned its news bulletins and historical drama series into propaganda to brainwash viewers.

Signed by 22 academics and lawyers, the letter also criticised the state TV monopoly for ignoring stories of social unrest, and whitewashing major events like the recent tainted milk scandal.

“We hereby declare a ‘four noes’ policy: We will not watch it, appear on it, listen to it, or talk about it,” said the group.

The letter highlighted six broad categories of alleged bias and brainwashing by the state broadcaster.

Topping the list was what the group decried as CCTV's attempt to put a positive spin on the melamine-laced milk scandal, which had sparked a global food scare.

It accused CCTV of misleading the public by publicising claims by the bankrupt Sanlu Group – which was at the centre of the controversy – that its dairy products had gone through “1,100 quality checks”.

The group also alleged that CCTV's news bulletins give “only the good news” when it comes to domestic coverage, but focus on “only the bad news” when reporting on foreign developments.

The letter was published on a United States-based website, but it has been picked up by Chinese websites.

“It is ridiculous that nearly all the channels are showing the same evening news bulletins at the same time,” said Beijing-based Ling Cangzhou, who initiated the boycott call.

“Many viewers are already turned off by the state media. By spearheading this move, we hope that public dissatisfaction over the tightly controlled media can be put across more forcefully.”

Ling, a senior editor of a financial publication, admitted that it was unrealistic to expect immediate reforms, but he was optimistic that the move could “sow the seeds for gradual change”.

In a swift rebuke yesterday, CCTV defended its record, saying it had done “timely and sufficient reports”, including on last year's Sichuan earthquake, the Tibetan riots and the tainted milk scandal.

In a faxed response to the Associated Press, Wang Jianhong, deputy director of the CCTV general editing department, said: “Speaking of propaganda, I'm afraid no country can avoid it. Even the United States used propaganda about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and invaded the country.”

Some Chinese viewers also pointed to China's coverage of the Sichuan quake as a sign of a more open and transparent state media.

Said a Sichuan resident in an Internet posting: “Updates and information were readily available on the state media. That helped to dispel rumours and restore order.”

While there have long been calls for more press freedom in China, the latest move has garnered greater attention, coming after a high-profile campaign for sweeping political change.

Last month, 303 intellectuals caused a stir when they posted an online political manifesto known as Charter 08, which has since garnered more than 7,000 signatures.

Incidentally, 14 of the intellectuals behind the CCTV boycott also backed the call for political change, said Ling, one of the early signatories of Charter 08.

These calls for reforms have reportedly caused nervousness among the Chinese leadership, which is grappling with rising popular disgruntlement as unemployment grows amid the global recession.

They come ahead of several politically sensitive anniversaries this year, like the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests on June 4.

In a sign that China recognises the need to remake its staid state media, the government may invest up to 32 billion yuan (S$7 billion) to transform CCTV and the official Xinhua news agency into a globally respected voice that will match its economic clout, Reuters reported yesterday.