Propaganda Officials Issue 21 Restrictions on Domestic Coverage of Olympics

August 22, 2008

Chinese officials recently sent an order to all newspaper editors in China banning coverage of politically sensitive topics and instructing them on how to cover other topics for the Olympics, according to August 12 articles in the South China Morning Post (SCMP, subscription required) and Telegraph. SCMP, citing mainland reporters as its source, said that the order came in the form of a 21-point directive issued in July. 

Chinese officials recently sent an order to all newspaper editors in China banning coverage of politically sensitive topics and instructing them on how to cover other topics for the Olympics, according to August 12 articles in the South China Morning Post (SCMP, subscription required) and Telegraph. SCMP, citing mainland reporters as its source, said that the order came in the form of a 21-point directive issued in July. An August 14 Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) article said the 21-point order came from the propaganda bureau, a reference to the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) under the Communist Party. Mainland reporters told SCMP that officials from provincial propaganda departments were holding daily meetings in Beijing with reporters from their provinces to ensure compliance with the order. Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing Olympic Committee, denied the existence of the directive, adding: "Chinese media, according to the Chinese Constitution, are free to report on the Games," according to SMH. Reports on the directive did not indicate how long it would last. The Summer Olympics end on August 24, and are followed by the Paralympics, which will conclude on September 17.

On August 14, SMH also published a purported complete English translation of the 21-point directive, whose content matches descriptions in the SCMP and Telegraph reports. Selected instructions from the directive (as translated by SMH) include:

1. The telecast of sports events will be live [but] in case of emergencies, no print is allowed to report on it.

2. From August 1, most of the previously accessible [sic] overseas websites will be unblocked. No coverage is allowed on this development. There's also no need to use stories published overseas on this matter and [website] operators should not provide any superlinks on their pages. [See a previous Congressional-Executive Commission on China analysis on the controversy between foreign reporters and Olympic officials over Internet censorship at Olympic venues.]

3. Be careful with religious and ethnic subjects.


7. As for the Pro-Tibetan independence and East Turkistan movements, no coverage is allowed. There's also no need to make a fuss about our anti-terrorism efforts.

8. All food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water, is off-limits.

9. In regard to the three protest parks, no interviews and coverage are allowed.

10. No fuss about the rehearsals on August 2,5. No negative comments about the opening ceremony.


13.On international matters, follow the official line. For instance, follow the official propaganda line on the North Korean nuclear issue; be objective when it comes to the Middle East issue and play it down as much as possible; no fuss about the Darfur question; No fuss about UN reform; be careful with Cuba. If any emergency occurs, please report to the foreign ministry.


15. Regarding diplomatic ties between China and certain nations, don't do interviews on your own and don't use online stories. Instead, adopt Xinhua stories only. Particularly on the Doha round negotiation, US elections, China-Iran co-operation, China-Aussie co-operation, China-Zimbabwe co-operation, China-Paraguay co-operation.


17. In case of an emergency involving foreign tourists, please follow the official line. If there's no official line, stay away from it.


21.Properly handle coverage of the Chinese sports delegation:

A.don't criticise the selection process.

B.don't overhype gold medals; don't issue predictions on gold medal numbers; don't make a fuss about cash rewards for athletes.

C.don't make a fuss about isolated misconducts by athletes.

D.enforce the publicity of our anti-doping measures.

E. put emphasis on government efforts to secure the retirement life of athletes.

F. keep a cool head on the Chinese performance. Be prepared for possible fluctuations in the medal race.

G. refrain from publishing opinion pieces at odds with the official propaganda line of the Chinese delegation.

Foreign media have noted muted or centralized domestic press coverage of potential controversies that have occurred during China's hosting of the Olympics.

  • SCMP said that most domestic press relied on reports by the central news outlet, Xinhua, to cover the August 9 stabbing death in Beijing of an American tourist who was a relative of the coach of the U.S. men's Olympic volleyball team. Telegraph reported that Chinese journalists at a U.S. volleyball team press conference had their notebooks and tape-recorders confiscated by officials. The paper also reported that officials told local media to give the story only brief coverage and not to tie it to the Olympics. The Commission notes that the story has been covered by some domestic news outlets, including the financial magazine Caijing (See, e.g., an August 12 report in ChineseEnglish).
  • SMH said that news about an August 13 pro-Tibet rally that took place near the main Olympic stadium and resulted in the detention of six protestors and a British journalist had been "blacked out from mainland Chinese press."
  • According to an August 13 Agence France-Presse article (via Yahoo News), officials enforced a "virtual media blackout" of a controversy involving lip-synching at the Olympic opening ceremonies.
  • According to a Chinese journalist cited in an August 19 New York Times article, propaganda officials prohibited domestic news media from criticizing China's star hurdler Liu Xiang or discussing details about his withdrawal from the Olympics.

Over the past year, Chinese propaganda officials have issued a number of orders to journalists directing them on how to cover topics for the Olympics.

  • November 2007 - CPD issued a notice to Chinese news editors restricting coverage of topics relating to the Olympics, including air quality and food safety, to counter "unfavorable publicity" in the foreign media and to prevent foreign media from picking up story ideas from local press.
  • April 2008 - CPD issued another notice urging domestic media to file reports more quickly in order to beat out foreign press coverage of protests during the Olympic torch relay, according to an April 9 SCMP report (subscription required). SCMP paraphrased the order as saying reports should "stick to the official line to better make China's case" to both domestic and international viewers. The order also described the relay as "our unprecedented, ferocious media war against the biased western press." SCMP noted that while Chinese media took four days to report on disruptions at the March torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, Chinese media responded more quickly to later protests in London and Paris, launching verbal attacks against the protesters and U.S. politicians who supported the Dalai Lama and airing footage of Chinese torch-bearers being attacked.
  • June 2008 - President Hu Jintao delivered a speech at the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, telling journalists their "first priority" is to "correctly guide public opinion" and specifically calling on them to pay special attention to their coverage of the Olympics.

China's propaganda directives violate international standards for freedom of expression. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed and has committed to ratify, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), permit restrictions on freedom of expression in a limited number of circumstances, but furthering a political agenda is not one of the permitted exceptions. While China has not publicly explained the purpose of these restrictions, much less acknowledged their existence, the reported substance of the restrictions strongly suggests that their aim is political. Furthermore, these restrictions also do not comply with the ICCPR and UDHR requirement that they be "prescribed by law" since they are issued by a Communist Party entity, rather than pursuant to legislation issued by one of the organs authorized to pass legislation under China's Legislation Law. Finally, Chinese officials have attempted to prevent the public from finding out about such directives. The Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in 2005 for disclosing state secrets after he revealed the contents of a propaganda directive warning journalists about their reporting on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.