Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party boss in the city-province of Chongqing, will go on trial tomorrow before a people’s court in Jinan, in Shandong province, on charges of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.
The initial hearing has been described as open but there many reasons for thinking that most of the trial will be held behind closed doors. Reporters Without Borders urges the Chinese authorities to give foreign reporters and observers unobstructed access to the courtroom.
“The fact that it is not officially a closed trial offers no guarantee that independent and international media will be allowed to cover it,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The authorities usually select which journalists are allowed into the courtroom to cover sensitive trials. In this case, the ‘selection’ took place well in advance, when the deadline for registering expired before the announcement of the date of the start of the trial.
“The government has every interest in maximizing media coverage of this trial in order to convince the Chinese people that it is committed to combatting corruption but the coverage will almost certainly suffer from being closely controlled. The censorship of online information about Bo Xilai in the run-up to the trial tends to confirm this.
“We urge the Chinese authorities to allow all local and foreign journalists and observers to attend Bo Xilai’s trial or else it will not, in our eyes, deserve the description of open and transparent.”
Foreign media targeted
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a foreign reporter based in China told Reporters Without Borders:
“Journalists were told that the trial was open but that unfortunately they could not attend it, above all because the deadline for registering, 4 pm last Sunday, had expired. But the Xinhua news agency dispatch announcing the date of the start of the Bo Xilai trial was released at exactly 4 pm on Sunday.
“Other journalists were told there was no more room. Xinhua will be in the courtroom and the rest of the Chinese media will have to use its dispatches. Other Chinese media may be allowed to attend but we don’t know yet.”
The foreign reporter added: “There is a media centre where journalists are supposed to register but we don’t know if it will provide us with certain services or it is just a way of keeping track of the journalists covering the trial. There are rumours on Weibo that the trial could be retransmitted live in this media centre but the definition of ‘live’ is not clear and it may be just the opening that is retransmitted. Either way, the rumours still have to be confirmed.”
Even if foreign and independent media are allowed into the courtroom, the Chinese public is unlikely to have access to their coverage. A directive issued by the General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television on 16 April bans the Chinese media from using unauthorized information from foreign media and websites.
Censorship in run-up to trial
The central propaganda department issued a directive to all the Chinese media yesterday saying: “The media must strictly follow the norm set by Xinhua’s dispatches for covering the Bo Xilai trial. Media chiefs must also carefully reinforce follow-up on Weibo and blogs.”
Meanwhile, the State Council Information Office said in a 24 July directive that “all forums and social networks have an obligation to delete messages that support Bo Xilai.” A Weibo account that supported Bo, called “Age of the Soldiers of Bo Xilai,” was removed on 28 May. Straightforward references to the trail are not being targeted. The chief concern is the criticism being voiced by the many Internet users who regard Bo as a scapegoat.
The Communist Party is currently taking all sorts of measures in an attempt to rein in the widespread suspicion that other government officials are heavily involved in corruption. A directive was issued a few weeks ago banning press photos showing the belts, watches, sunglasses or cigarettes of politicians to avoid encouraging questions about the origins of their wealth.
Electronic versions of the traditional newspapers are also subject to government control. Access to the Wall Street Journal’s Chinese digital version was blocked on 3 August, a few days after it published an appeal by the mother of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who was for many years a friend of Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, and who was poisoned by Gu.
Bo’s trial is due to start just two days after the first anniversary of the date that
Gu was given a suspended death sentence, which is tantamount to a sentence of life imprisonment.
Netizens who openly support Bo have been the targets of a government crackdown since the start of the month. They include Song Yangbiao, a well-known journalist with Time Weekly, who was arrested in Beijing on 5 August. Netizen Ma Jiming’s Weibo account was suppressed after he posted a message of support for Bo.
Wang Zheng, the author of an open letter supporting Bo, said he was prevented from meeting journalists by the close police surveillance to which he is being subjected.
China is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet” and is ranked 173rd out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
It is also named in the 2013 special report on surveillance, “Enemies of the Internet” - China.
Photo : LIU JIN / AFP