Censorship in China allows the government to control the media narratives. How can democracies protect free speech and sort fact from fiction online?

A protester demonstrates against censorship, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1 July 2016 (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

By Sarah Mende

Welcome to Season Two of The Kids Are Alright.

From Beijing, China to Ojai Valley, California, our young reporters conducted 21 interviews, spoke with 15 experts and covered nine countries for Season Two of this joint podcast produced by News-Decoder and Podium.me.

Reporter Kate Van Dusen kicks off Season two with an episode close to the hearts of those involved in this project: censorship and freedom of speech.

Van Dusen recently returned to her hometown in the U.S. state of Texas after a year living in China, where she studied at School Year Abroad in Beijing.

She discusses media censorship with News-Decoder correspondent David Schlesinger, who used to be Chairman of Thomson Reuters China, to look at the ways media is censored in China and in the West.

Listeners will hear from Zhou Fengshou, a former student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests; Curry Wang, a Chinese national living in Canada; and Garrett Wilson, an American reporter who covered the French yellow vests movement.

Podcast Transcript

Gareth Lewis

Gareth: Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective. I’m Gareth Lewis.

And I’m Amber Miller. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community. 

Amber Miller

Kate Van Dusen

Kate: Hi! My name is Kate and I’m a 17-year-old student from Austin, Texas. As an American citizen, I grew up believing in and appreciating our First Amendment right: freedom of speech. 

I spent the past year living in Beijing with a Chinese family on an immersive study abroad program and experienced restricted access to social media and my usual news sites. I left China just days before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and returned home to an outpouring of commemorative stories about what happened on June 4, 1989, and articles pointing to China’s censorship of its history.

I decided to interview David Schlesinger, a long-time journalist, consultant and expert on China and the media sector, to discuss how governments can control the media narrative and what this means for the future of free expression.

David: My name is David Schlesinger. I’m the former Editor-in-Chief of Reuters, and I am now a consultant. When I was with Reuters, I reported from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and then I went to the United States, where I ran the America’s region. And then I started to have global jobs ending up as Editor-in-Chief. After I left that, I became the chairman of Thomson Reuters China. And then I went off on my own as a consultant.

David Schlesinger

Kate: Ok. So, just to sort of familiarize listeners with the topic, could you give a brief explanation of what is media censorship, what is the impact on the people etc.?

David: I think that one of the things we have to worry about is that censorship is not always the old-fashioned kind. The old-fashioned censorship is a reporter who is required to bring his or her reports to a central office where some official says, “Yes, this can go out” or “No, you have to change such and such.” But more often what happens is that there is censorship after the fact, which isn’t official censorship. It’s more like you write a report and then the government calls you in and either says they’re very angry at you or threaten you with expulsion or actually do expel you, or they try to close down your organization. And that has a very big, chilling effect. In many countries, there really is still the official kind of censorship where governments say what can be reported, how it should be reported, and then they also have that after-the-fact censorship, when someone does something wrong, they’ll fire or fine or imprison or all those things.

The thing is there is always going to be a huge spectrum of people. So there will be some people who are always going to be suspicious of their own government no matter what they read in the paper. No matter what they see on television. No matter what they hear on the radio. They’ll always believe the worst.

Then there is another group on the other end of the spectrum which will always think no matter what the media says — whether there’s censorship or not — think their government is the best thing in the world and they won’t believe a word against it. 

Then there’s a huge block of people in the middle, and it’s that block of people who are probably most affected by censorship because if they’re not naturally positive and not naturally negative towards their government, then they will be influenced by what they read, what they hear, what they see. And if those reports say black is white and red is green, they will believe that. And over time they will think that is actually the way things are, and they won’t question it. So it’s really that big mass of people in the middle who are most affected by it. There will always be some people who will never believe the censored reports. There will always be other people who will always believe everything that they read. Then there will be people in the middle, who will be swayed by reports that are twisted or changed by government.  

Kate: So what do you think the impact of media censorship is on citizens’ feelings of their government being transparent with them?

David: Well, the real problem is that when the government starts to meddle in the news, that means that the news organizations then either are forced to or feel they are forced to do things which pull back on their job of holding the government to account. So let’s say that I know about corruption going on in the government. If I am not allowed to put that story out, then the public never hears about it, the courts never hear about it, and the people who are involved in the corruption do it with impunity. If you believe that the media has a very important role in holding power to account, in revealing things that the government doesn’t necessarily want to have revealed, in telling the truth as the media organization sees it, then censorship gets in the way of that. Censorship puts a wall between the truth-seekers — the journalists — and the truth-demanders — the public. And it means that the public never sees the light of day, the reports never get out, and people can’t find out the inner-workings of their government. 

Kate: So do you think that media censorship is getting increasingly difficult to do with a more connected world and there are more ways to evade media censorship?

David: I wish that were true, but I think it’s not. I think all you have to do is look at China, which is the probably the best example of a country that has used the new technologies to actually keep a tighter grip on media. To say that the situation is, if anything, getting worse. So what China has done is it has basically created an internet within an internet. So that within what people call the “Great Internet Wall of China”, you can’t get Facebook, you can’t get Twitter, you can’t use Google — you have to use the Chinese equivalents. And then you add to the fact that the Chinese media is very much under the control of the central propaganda authorities, and you add then to that that social media within China is controlled — it’s censored — and the reports that the government doesn’t want to get out are taken down instantly. Then you can see that no matter all the new technologies that exist, it is possible to actually insulate yourselves quite effectively. And China’s not the only one. So the new technological situation has developed new tools of censorship, new tools of control. And I think there will always be this arms race with some people trying to use technology to get freer and then governments using technology to actually assert more power. 

Kate: I think a lot of people have the misconception that media censorship is only a problem in countries like China and Russia. But could you briefly talk about some of the laws in the European Union, in Australia, in countries that we consider more Westernized, that also censor the media?

David: I think it’s really a question of definition, isn’t it? Whether you call it censorship or whether you call it media accountability laws. I worry that governments the world over are trying to use legal means to control the media a lot more. So for example, even just the, I’d say the European Union laws about the right to be forgotten. In theory, in sounds quite nice. Why should something that I did as a 20-year-old haunt me as a 60-year-old? If somebody writes something that I consider to be wrong about me, shouldn’t I have the right to have that expunged from media everywhere? So the theory behind it is quite a nice sounding one. But in practice, I think it is a means to really go against people who are trying to do investigative journalism, a way of allowing wrong-doers to hide behind the wall of “privacy” and primacy. So I consider that a problem. 

When President Trump actually said he wants to  actually revise American libel laws as well, in a way that is quite threatening to the press. The trend is actually towards governments who plan to exert more control; more control of the narrative, more control of what the “facts” actually are. I think that the trend is not actually a very good one for the media or for free expression.

Kate: So talking about America specifically, do you think that Trump’s treatment of journalists and media bashing, do you think that that borders on sort of attempted media censorship? 

David: In a way I think it’s worse. It’s worse than censorship. It means that people don’t know what a fact is anymore. It’s normalized this idea that everybody can have his or her own version of reality. Whether that means believing that martians can walk on earth, or believing that guns don’t kill people, or believing that glaciers melting, aren’t a sign of global warming. It’s this idea that there are no facts. That there are no truths. I think that’s in a way worse than censorship. Censorship actually grants great status to the media. It says, “What you do is so important that I’m going to try to control this.” What’s happening in Trump’s America is worse. It says, “This has no value whatsoever. None of it is real. None of it is important.” 

So no matter what a newspaper reports or television reports or an investigative reporter puts in years of experience into reporting, don’t believe a word of it. And my worry is that a lot of people have swallowed that and now they don’t believe anything from any source.

Amber Miller

Amber: David Schlesigner is a news professional whose life mission has been to understand and convey world affairs to the public. He thinks that government control over the media and public distrust in news is a serious threat to the future of democracy.  After speaking with David, we decided to reach out to someone who has been personally affected by censorship. His name is Zhou Fengsuo.

 Zhou: I was a Tiananmen student leader 30 years ago. I was most wanted nationwide, and later I was imprisoned for a year. I came to the United States in ‘95, and now I am working with Humanitarian China, a non-profit organization that I co-founded in 2007.

Zhou Fengsuo
Kate Van Dusen

Kate: Will you just talk a little bit about your experience with media censorship when you were a Tiananmen student leader?

Zhou: In 1989, there was no press freedom in China. At that time, there was a lot of reflection on China’s past from the Cultural Revolution. So there was this push even within the Communist Party for more freedom and the press on people’s expression overall. So in 1989, when the student movement broke out, that was one of our first demands — to ask for freedom of the press. 

After the  massacre of 1989, Tiananmen and its history and everything associated with it became a topic for censorship. So everything that happened in 1989 and June 4, for example, is censored. This is one of the longest lasting fights today on the internet in this space of free speech around Tiananmen and remembering the truth and the facts for justice. 

It’s very sad that Communist China could use all the modern technology basically to erase the memory so successfully that the whole younger generations of China have no idea of what happened in 1989, 30 years ago in China’s capital.

When I went back to China, I was not quiet. I was calling for an open discussion about the truth of 1989 to be told to the general public. 

Kate: When you went back to China, you were trying to spread the truth about the history of Tiananmen. How are you personally trying to evade media censorship in order to get real facts? 

Zhou: I am still active in the United States on human rights issues. I co-founded Humanitarian China. Our mission is to provide humanitarian support to political prisoners in China and to promote freedom of expression, rule of law and democracy in China. Of course my own name –everything, my history — is censored. In China, only selected articles on me does the government allow. Of course, they are all critical of me. To me, it’s a lifelong battle every day that my very presence reminds people of 1989, and that because of this paranoia, permissive censorship, people see me as a threat to their convenient way of complying with censorship.  

Gareth Lewis

Gareth: Next, we turned to two young people, Curry Wang and Garrett Wilson, to hear  their views on the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and the responsibilities of the government and media. Curry is a Chinese national currently studying in Canada, and Garrett is an American student and photojournalist.

Kate: Have you had any experiences where you’ve sort of learned one thing or been told one thing in China and through the Chinese media, and then you’ve seen international media that says something different?

Kate Van Dusen
Curry Wang

Curry: Yeah, of course, I mean this situation actually happens a lot, especially for international students. Once you get overseas and go into another country, you hear different things, hear people say about different things. You hear about what government says, it’s pretty much different from what the outside world has to say about it. From the inside, we have to keep a balance for society, we have to keep the peace, kind of pretend that we don’t know about the truth. From the outside, the perspective will be objective, but there are also some criticisms which sometimes can harm the development of a society or even a country.

Kate: Garrett, you spent the last year in Rennes, France, following the “yellow vests” or “gilets jaunes” movement and working as an intern at Ouest France, a French news outlet. I asked him if he ever felt that protestors or police were not welcoming of his presence. 

Kate Van Dusen
Garrett Wilson

Garrett: The police officers were not accepting at all of the journalists. Despite people wearing shirts and helmets labeled “Press,” they would group us in with protestors. They were violent if you tried to take photos of them, tried to take videos of them. The protestors were as well. The first weekend, when it was peaceful, the protestors were much more open to being interviewed and having their photos taken. But as it progressed, the protestors, in response to that were very hostile and violent towards any medium. There were several times when people would come up and chase and try to attack me while I was taking photos. I watched them do it to other journalists because they didn’t trust the media. They said no more media because they felt that interviews and photos were getting skewed to make them out as violent, which they were, but not including what they saw as their justification.

Kate: So in the U.S., and as Americans, we are proud of the concept of free speech and free press and everything like that. But do you think that with Donald Trump as president — and his reaction to a lot of the media — do you think that’s right or that concept is getting a little bit muddled? 

Garrett: Yes, definitely. I think that the concept of free press still exists but what the press is reporting has become skewed. Since Donald Trump was elected, you see news sources choose one side or another. Whether they move further right or further left, I think the concept of free press and neutral press is, as far as the government is concerned, is still there. But as far as the people are concerned, what journalists and news agencies are reporting, is further and further from the truth by their own choice.

Kate Van Dusen

Kate: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from speaking with Curry and Garrett, it’s that even with censorship and political polarization, there are facts out there. Brave individuals like Zhou have devoted their lives to spreading the truth. As news and media consumers, it’s up to us to be selective and responsible.

And with that, I’d like to close with some advice from David.

David: Let’s concentrate on what the facts really are. Get them out without fear, without favor, and then worry about the commentary and worry about the opinions separately. But facts really are sacred. Let’s believe in them. Let’s try to get them out openly and fairly.

David Schlesinger

Amber Miller

 You’ve been listening to an episode of The Kids Are Alright, brought to you by Podium.me and News-Decoder. We hope you tune in for our next episode on animal agriculture.

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