Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 In 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang became known as the first ruler of a unified China. Interestingly, he was also one of the first documented officials to develop an information and media policy for the governance of his Chinese kingdom. Written after a century of his rule, “Sima Qian: Chancellor Li Si’s Advice, Biography of the First Emperor” revealed Qin Shi Huang’s severe destruction of Chinese history and free speech in a bid to maintain absolute control over China (Qian & Watson, 1993).

Comment Icon0 Some of the acts Qin Shi Huang decreed included: 1) all Chinese historical records to be burned except those of the state of Qin, or on subjects relating to medicine, divination, agriculture and forestry; 2) any criticism or discussion based on these historical records or antiquities would lead to public execution, along with the family; 3) any official who fails to report them would be found equally guilty; 4) anyone who failed to burn such books within 30 days of promulgation would be punitively tattooed and condemned to hard labor and 5) anyone wishing to study the laws and ordinances would have a law official for his teacher.

Comment Icon0 With the advent of censorship on the Internet, it is easy to forget the historical endangerment of earlier cultural products such as books, films and music. Book burning, or better known as biblioclasm, is the ceremonious practice of the destruction of books and related print material. The burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty was matched by the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the destruction of Mayan codices by Spanish conquistadors and priests, Nazi book burnings and the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library, which were some of the most traumatic memories of irreplaceable books being destroyed. Since the loss of such books constituted a severe damage to cultural heritage, book burning has become symbolic of a harsh and oppressive regime. In most cases, book burning comes as the result of unacceptable material according to generally accepted moral, political or religious standards.

Comment Icon0 Even open, democratic societies such as the United States faced similar moral dilemmas as civil institutions have tried to supervise the morality of the public through destructive censorship. Founded in 1873 by Anthony Comstock, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (Figure 2) was estimated to have destroyed an estimated 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing such ‘objectionable’ books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. All of this material was defined as “lewd” by Comstock’s very broad definition of the term, which he and his associates successfully lobbied the United States Congress to incorporate in the Comstock Law (Boyer, 2002).

Figure 2: Symbol of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which clearly advocated bookburning.

Comment Icon0 Ironically, several infamous books have long fictionalized the prospect of extreme bibloclasm in society. The Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451, is about a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, an euphemism called “memory hole” is used to burn any book or written text which is inconvenient to the regime, and there is mention of “the total destruction of all books published before 1960”. In both novels, a sterile civilization is presented in which freedom of thought is taboo, which helps reaffirm the value of books and the benefits of liberty. Modern forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes and CDs have historically faced equally ceremonious destruction. This practice is generally made public to instill moral, religious or political objections to the material.

Comment Icon0 Today, the media reality of China is vastly different, by being significantly humanitarian yet distinctly fragmented. From the television in the living room, the newspaper on the doorstep, the radio in the car, the computer at work, and the fliers in the mailbox, various forms of mass-communicated media saturate our industrialized world with news, opinions, music and almost any possible cultural product that interests us. As a consequence to an increasing prevalence of media in society, the media have historically had tremendous impact on how modern civilizations picture the state of the world. Consequently, the freedom granted to the press is often regarded as a highly crucial aspect of a democratic society. Never before have mass media been more publicly involved with the political process as they are today (Lichtenberg, 1990). As such, governments legitimize their holistic role of maintaining social stability through regulations against the possible oversights of mass media’s commercial owners and producers.

Comment Icon0 The press acknowledges its inherent bias, which is no better demonstrated with the New York Times’ company slogan located on the top-left corner of the paper: “All the news that’s fit to print”. It has been a well-established notion that the media do not only report the news, but they create the news by deciding on what is worth reporting. From the millions of events that happen on a particular day, key stories are picked and featured at varying levels. The significance of newsworthy items is depicted through how much time or space to give it, who to interview, what pictures to use, and how to frame it. If a situation doesn’t make the news, it simply does not exist for most of us. The interests of the editorial management eventually impact the public’s view of the world, and those who influence the decisions in turn influence the audience.

Comment Icon0 In The Free Press, Belloc (1918) maintained that mainstream media were neither objective nor faithful to the truth, but instead behaved as simple tools in the hands of their owners. In effect, the mass media informed according to the interests of their owners, with professional journalists being mere subjects fulfilling the orders of their employers. In order to resolve this problem, Belloc suggested an alternative through the promotion of independent or free media, which are not dominated by plutocratic interests. By having these alternative news channels to offer information to complement that disseminated by mainstream media, he believed that there would be a more balanced representation of world events. Since the advent of the Internet, the viability of such free press has existed with significantly lower barrier to entry in the form of website, which evolved into user-friendly weblogs. While the relationship between mass media and politics would bring about greater ambiguity in mass media’s role, this ambiguity might now be in check with the rise of networked-citizen watchdogs now participating in the amateur production and distribution of news (Lichtenberg, 1990). It is this multitude of voices in the mass media as well as on the Internet that speaks volumes for the state of democracy in a country.

Comment Icon0 There is no secret that China, along with closed societies such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has long seen the Internet as an open invitation to the breakdown of their social and political order (Endeshaw, 2004). As a result, browsing and communicating over the Internet from these countries often come as a suppressed experience. Comparatively, both closed and open societies share the same legitimate reasons behind such media regulations, and these include public security, national defence, racial and religious harmony, as well as public morals. The difference lies in how ambiguous their media regulations are, which closed societies could call upon as pressure points against the provision of information that is considered “politically sensitive” or that conveys organized dissent and criticism of authoritarian governments. In the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), information pertaining to China’s human rights record, Tibetan independence, Falungong, Taiwan, or the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, was found to come under media censorship (OpenNet Initiative, 2009).

Comment Icon0 In the course of protecting China’s national stability, the government’s overarching legal regulations governing freedom of speech and media content optimistically began with Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution, which guarantees citizens of the PRC “freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and the right to establish organizations, movement and protest”. However, these freedoms are directly restricted by four articles in the constitution: Article 38 mandates that the reputation of PRC citizens cannot be compromised by humiliating or libelous statements; Article 51 states that citizens cannot, in the exercise of their freedom, harm the collective interests of the nation, society, or the freedom enjoyed by other citizens; Article 53 calls for all citizens to “protect state secrets, cherish public assets […] respect public order and social morals”; and Article 54 states that citizens have the duty to protect the “security, honor and interests of the motherland” and that to do otherwise is prohibited. In reality, these articles have been manipulated in the self-interest of the post-totalitarian regime to suppress politically undesirable forms of information (Freedom House, 2006).

Comment Icon0 For both professional and amateur media outlets, governments often reserve the right to regulate news on the established ground of social stability. While national interest may often include regulation over pornography, national security, rumour-mongering, or defamation in the subversive context, at times meaningful details for such regulations are missing to the public. Such loopholes allow for governments to maintain political control, since such vague media policies tend to allow incumbent authorities to have arbitrary power on the issue. For instance, the United States Congressional Executive Commission on China pointed out nine vague and overbroad regulations within the Chinese media legislation (CECC, 2006) as seen in Table 2.

Legislation Issuer Selected Provisions
Interim Provisions on the Administration of Internet Publication (2002) MII
Article 17: Internet publications may not carry the following types of content:

Comment Icon0 (iii)  harming the honor or the interests of the nation;

Comment Icon0 (vi)  spreading rumours, disturbing social order, disrupting social stability.

Measures for the Administration of Telecommunication Business Licenses (2001) MII Appendix 2 (III)(iv):  No operators or their employees shall utilize telecommunication networks to produce, copy, promulgate or transmit any information containing the following types of content:

Comment Icon0 3.  harming the honor or the interests of the nation;

Comment Icon0 6.  spreading rumours, disturbing social order or disrupting social stability.

Regulations on the Administration of Publishing (2001) SC Article 26:   No publication may contain the following types of content:

Comment Icon0 (iii)  harming the honor or the interests of the nation;

Comment Icon0 (vi)  disturbing social order, disrupting social stability.

Notice Regarding Further Strengthening the Administration of Periodicals Relating to Current Affairs and Politics, General Lifestyle, Information Tabloids and Scientific Theory (2000) GAPP 2.  It is strictly prohibited for publications to include any of the following contents:

Comment Icon0 (1)  gainsaying the leadership of Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory;

Comment Icon0 (3) . . . jeopardizing the interests of the nation;

Comment Icon0 (4) . . . influencing social stability;

Comment Icon0 (5) . . . propagating superstition, pseudo-science or incorrect teachings.

Comment Icon0 (6)  spreading rumours, producing and distributing false news, interfering in the broader work of the party or the nation;

Comment Icon0 (7)  otherwise violating the propaganda discipline of the party or violating the regulations administering the nation’s publishing.

Notice Regarding the Further Strengthening of the Administration of Selection of Articles for Newspapers and Periodicals (2000) GAPP 1. . . . .  [Newspapers and periodicals] shall not select articles that contradict the guiding policies of the Party and the nation. . . .
Provisions on the Administration of Internet Electronic Bulletin Services (2000) MII Article 9:  No person may issue any information having the following types of content on an electronic bulletin service:

Comment Icon0 (iii)  harming the honor or the interests of the nation;

Comment Icon0 (vi)  spreading rumours, disturbing social order or disrupting social stability.

Notice Regarding the Work of Bringing the Periodical Industry Under Control (1997) GAPP 2(6): In any of the following circumstances where administrative measures have been adopted but there has been no clear improvement, publication should be ceased:

Comment Icon0 (1)  Articles have been carried which have severe political errors;

Provisions on the Administration of Electronic Publications (1997) GAPP Article 6:  No electronic publications may contain the following types of content:

Comment Icon0 (iii)  jeopardizing the nation’s . . . honor or interests.

Measures on the Administration of Safeguarding the Safety of Internationally Networked Computer Information Networks (1997) MPS Article 5:  No unit or individual may utilize the Internet to produce, copy, look up or transmit any of the following categories of information:

Comment Icon0 (v)  spreading rumours or disrupting social order;

Comment Icon0 (viii)  harming the credibility of a government agency.

Comment Icon0 Table 2: United States Congressional Executive Commission on China: Vague regulations (CECC, 2006)

Comment Icon0 The United States Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) explained: “The wording of these laws would not necessarily be vague and overbroad if PRC legislative bodies provided statutory guidance regarding what constitutes the national interest, rumour mongering, or defamation in the subversion context, or if the public security authorities and Procuracy provided guidance as to when they will or will not pursue criminal complaints in connection with these matters, or if China’s courts issued meaningful opinions when deciding cases involving such matters. Unfortunately, Chinese authorities have yet to offer any such guidance to the public” (CECC, 2006).

Chapter 2.2 – Why Governments Regulate the Media


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