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Press freedom in China? The WTO is not interested

Published September 11, 2006 9:13PM (EDT)

The New York Times reported today that China has announced a set of new restrictions on foreign news media. According to the Times, "the state-run New China News Agency [Xinhua] said it would become the de facto gatekeeper for foreign news reports, photographs and graphics entering China. The agency announced in its own dispatch that it would censor content that endangers 'national security.'"

The Sinoblogosphere is taking the news in stride, by and large dismissing it as a typical Chinese attempt to reinvigorate laws that already exist on the books. The Wall Street Journal interpreted it as a business dispute -- as the blog Silicon Hutong summarizes, the real issue may be Xinhua's attempt to get a piece of the lucrative business of selling realtime financial newsfeeds -- the kind of thing that Bloomberg and Reuters specialize in.

But one reader brought my attention to the last paragraph of the Times story, which notes that "In the past, Western media companies have said that such strong-arm tactics may violate Chinas obligations under the World Trade Organization." The reader wanted to know if there really is a connection between press freedom and WTO membership. Could this be a way to use globalization as a postive force: loosen your media controls or we'll file a complaint with the WTO!?

Not really. The WTO disapproves strongly of goverment regulators that are also market players -- i.e. Xinhua -- from blocking their foreign competitors from market access. But as far as I can tell, there's absolutely nothing in China's accession to the WTO agreement that says anything about press freedom. So while one can well look forward to Western media organizations pushing to make Xinhua's power play into a trade issue, their gripe is about losing an established profit stream, and not about their freedom to report about Tibetan or Taiwanese independence for a mainland Chinese audience.

And if that's not depressing enough, for a really sobering look at the state of press freedom in China, try these excerpts from He Qinglian's report, "Media Control in China," published by Human Rights in China.

UPDATE: A late-breaking addendum from Mu Lin, an assistant professor of communications at the University of North Florida, who has done research on China's post-WTO accession media market.

"China's WTO obligations are not connected at all to anything that happens to China's media sector. If you read the WTO policies and rules carefully, you will know that the way WTO membership works is that a signatory country has the discretion to choose which markets it wants to open to other countries, and which markets it does not want to open to other countries. That said, China did not, and maybe will not, open the media market to foreign investors. Which means anything the Chinese government does to regulate the media sector, it has nothing to do with the WTO obligations."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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