How China is muzzling the commercial media

The commercial media in China are more likely to promote the stability of the regime than to undermine it. Political scientist Daniela Stockmann analyses in her new book, Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China why this is the case. ‘Many journalists do not want a disrupted society.’

Entertainment

Daniela Stockmann says she is somewhat surprised about the outcome of her research. ‘Beforehand, I thought that the commercial media would report on political news slightly differently fromthe official state media. I did not expect overt, sharp criticism, but I did expect a somewhat different approach that would lead to more discussion in the public debate.’ Since 1978 China has allowed commercial newspapers, magazines and television channels that are fully financed by advertising revenues. Stockmann analysed news coverage in more than two thousand newspaper articles. ‘The commercial media present the news in a slightly different way from the state media, but a large part of that is entertainment value. For politically sensitive subjects they largely follow the state media’s cues.’


Self-censorship

Daniela Stockmann: ‘The Chinese have become very creative in avoiding sensitive terms.’

Daniela Stockmann: ‘The Chinese have become very creative in avoiding sensitive terms.’

The commercial media can be very critical, according to Stockmann, but only about issues about which the Chinese regime is also critical. Conversations with dozens of journalists and civil servants explained why these media are so conformist. ‘The regime has a highly effective network of propaganda officials who monitor the media intensively. They reprimand journalists if they are too critical and sometimes they issue warnings to their editors and editors-in-chief.’ Of course these officials cannot keep up with everything, Stockmann argues, but they do help create a culture in which journalists do not dare to speak freely. ‘The result is that journalists often exercise self-censorship.’ Aside from this, she mentions another important point: ‘Many journalists do not want a disrupted society; they are afraid of the consequences.’


Creative

The internet and social media are also strictly controlled. If you search for politically sensitive subjects, often no hits are returned that contain critical information. And on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, users cannot discuss all issues openly. Officials monitor the stream of messages permanently and take action when comments are too critical. This does not mean that there is no debate. ‘The Chinese have become very creative in avoiding sensitive terms so that they can still express their opinions.’

Arab Spring

In her book, Stockmann also focuses on the media in other regions that have authoritarian regimes. During the Arab Spring, commercial media in several Arab countries played a role in undermining the regime. Why is it possible there? ‘These countries have a far less effective network of propaganda officials that monitor activities and issue warnings. Therefore these regimes had much less control over the media.’

Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China
Daniela Stockmann
Cambridge University Press, 2013
Hardback ISBN-13: 9781107018440

(21 februari 2013)

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Last Modified: 25-02-2013