Report on China's Only Government Authorized Private Television News Network Shows How the Media Must Self-Censor

September 26, 2005

Phoenix Satellite Television, the only private television network that the Chinese government has authorized to broadcast news in Chinese, was profiled in a September 19 article in the Washington Post. The article detailed the political self-censorship that Liu Changle, Phoenix's founder, must impose to continue broadcasting. Liu, a former People's Liberation Army colonel and military journalist with Central People's Radio, and now one of China's richest men, told the Post reporter: "We walk on a tightrope. If we do everything the government wants, people will treat us with contempt. If we follow the people completely, the government will wipe us out. . . . It can be very uncomfortable." The director of Phoenix's news channel said that Liu once told her: "Why should we make Beijing angry? Let someone else do it."

Liu's statements echo comments to the New York TImes by Hu Shuli, editor of Caijing, a Chinese magazine with a reputation for testing China's censors, in an April 2005 report: "We go up to the line -- we might even push it. But we never cross it."

The Washington Post article reports that, while Phoenix is aggressive when reporting on world events, it remains "timid in reporting domestic news, often avoiding sensitive stories that the best state newspapers tackle." The article describes the type of political self-censorship that Phoenix must impose to avoid being shut down by the government as follows:

While the government barred its own radio and television stations from reporting [the news of former Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang's death in January 2005], Phoenix led its evening newscast with her brief report. Then the station's commentators began discussing Zhao's legacy and whether his death might prompt new calls for political reform. Almost immediately, one after another, provincial governments began cutting off the Phoenix signal. Alarmed, Liu flew back to Beijing, smoothed things over with the authorities -- and stopped his journalists from pushing the Zhao story any further.

Under China's Measures on the Administration of Foreign Satellite Television Channel Reception, foreign satellite broadcasters may legally distribute their channels only through terrestrial stations controlled by Chinese authorities, and from there, only to viewers at government-authorized locations. This allows government censors to black out portions of foreign news broadcasts they do not wish Chinese citizens to view. They used this capability following Zhao's death to censor CNN and BBC broadcasts when they mentioned Zhao's name.