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The virus of censorship

Chinese media organizations are riddled with informers who report directly to the government – only a minority of journalists are brave enough to fight the system.

One afternoon in May 2001, I got a call from a stranger claiming to be from the publicity department of Guangdong provincial party committee, asking me to remove an article that was going to be published in the next day’s Southern Metropolis Daily. As editor-in-chief of the paper, I often got similar calls from party organisations. However, on this occasion I did not know the caller and I wanted to take the chance to show my disappointment, so I answered very impolitely: “I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I cannot be certain that this is a directive from the departmental leadership. To prevent anyone from falsely using the name of the publicity department and issuing orders to the paper, please could you fax over written documentation, because it is hard to execute this when there is no evidence.”

Towards the end of Jiang Zemin’s term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), the control over the media by the publicity department, led by Ding Guangen, got tighter and tighter. One obvious change was that the department no longer sent orders to the media in formal documents or cables, requiring editors to implement them. Instead, it left messages on the phone or sent text messages directly to specific people in charge. The reason for this was that there were increasingly frequent prohibitions. Written documents needed to be approved at every level, and the bureaucracy was too complex and too slow in urgent cases. Passing the message over the phone or by text message was quick; the process was simple and effective.

Before the current general secretary, Hu Jintao, came to power in 2002, human rights worsened, justice took a step back, certain dignitaries rose in power and corruption intensified. The CCP’s ideological clampdown strengthened in all aspects and the media took the biggest hit. Liu Yunshan, a former correspondent for Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, took charge of the publicity department. He seemed to be professional at hiding the truth and fabricating lies. The authorities exerted greater control over the media and the extent of the control grew even wider. There were ever more tactics, which became more specific and targeted. Every time there was a big emergency or an important meeting, there would be a deluge of prohibitions and regulations from the publicity department.

Early in 2003, when Sars was widespread, the publicity department of the Guangdong provincial party committee sometimes issued up to 30 prohibitions a day. It would even issue specific rules on what articles should be put on the front page, the position of articles, guidance on headlines, specifications of photographs and so on. Southern Metropolis Daily, however, continued to break from the controls and air its voice. Zhang Dejiang at that time was a politburo standing committee member and also secretary of Guangdong provincial party committee. On two occasions, at the provincial standing party committee, he asked his sub­ordinates: “Why don’t we sue the people in charge of Southern Metropolis Daily for exposing confidential information?”

The party authorities’ ideas were consistent with Zhang Dejiang’s, and they began to put these ideas into practice. On 17 September 2004 Zhao Yan, an assistant at the New York Times’s Beijing bureau, was arrested in Shanghai. Two months later, a reporter at Modern Business in Hunan, Shi Tao, was detained in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Both reporters were sued for leaking confidential information. Zhao Yan was given a three-year prison sentence and Shi Tao ten years. The evidence for Shi Tao’s so-called crime was that he leaked publicity department prohibitions to the outside world’s media.

Publicity department control of the media in the Hu Jintao era became underground and secretive, probably because it knew that its actions were unjust and possibly institutionally criminal. A clear change during this period was the way officials would call the media to communicate a prohibition and often stress before hanging up: “Do not make a written record. Do not leave any written evidence. Do not disclose the content of the ban, which department issued the ban, and especially not the name of the leader who issued it.”

As the prohibitions became more private and hidden, they became a big “power-seeking” tool for the publicity department. High-level party officials, in order to dress up their track record and the realities of society, relied heavily on the publicity department. Propaganda officials were flattered and given more opportunities for promotion. On the other hand, party officials, rich and powerful interest groups and large companies, in the case of a scandal, would no longer think about media relations but instead seek to appease senior officials at the publicity department as soon as possible, in order to shut off and control the information at the source. A media scholar from Suzhou University, Du Zhihong, said on his Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) that the prohibition orders were used to protect the interests of the corrupt and criminal activities. He wondered how much protection money was received behind each order.

The publicity department usually controls the media by commenting on news. It publishes a regular News Comments report to central politburo members and all secretaries of provincial party committees. It comments on, and gives suggestions for responses to, news and essays that have already been published. This is classic post-event news censorship. The publicity department news comment group is comprised of extreme leftists retired from the government media. They let off steam about the words of any media organisation that is not faithful to the party or not in the party’s interest. As a result, they receive special treatment and benefits. However, the post-event system has its flaws. It is useful only when working with the tamed majority of the media – people who worry about losing their position – but is less effective with the disobedient minority.

On the line

In April 2000, a column in Southern Metropolis Daily was criticised severely by News Comments. Not long afterwards, at the politburo meeting, the then publicity department director, Ding Guangen, took a copy of News Comments out of his briefcase. With a pencil he wrote: “For the attention of Secretary Chang­chun”. He then handed it over to Li Chang­chun, a politburo member and secretary of the Guangdong provincial party standing com­mittee, who was sitting at his side. Several days later, Zhong Yangsheng, another member of Guangdong’s standing committee and director for propaganda, summoned Fan Yijin, director of the Southern Newspaper Group, for a talk. He explicitly asked for me to be dismissed as editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily and be removed from all responsibilities at the paper. Fan Yijin took the usual steps of delaying the process and, by lifting the barrel of the gun an inch higher, kept me in my position.

Fan Yijin’s response, in his protection of his subordinates, is no longer possible. In the past few years, the central government has systematically eliminated all opportunities for the media to voice dissent. It has removed any space in which the liberal media can exist. Publicity departments at all levels not only directly or indirectly keep a tight leash on the appointments of senior staff in the media, but they also plant followers and informers within organisations so they can quickly establish the internal situation of the media and respond accordingly.

One morning at the end of May 2003, Zhong Yangsheng summoned the entire Southern Metropolis Daily editing committee to the Guangdong publicity department for three hours of lectures, in which he abused and cursed the paper. After the meeting, back in the office, I treated the editing committee to lunch. At the table, we did not hold back on mocking and criticising Zhong Yangsheng’s rigid and ridiculous extreme-leftist views. In the afternoon, as I was rushing to Shenzhen for a meeting, I got a call from Zhang Dongming, director of the news section of Guangdong’s publicity department. He said harshly: “Not only did you just fail to implement the words of the publicity department leaders, but you insulted them. How dare you!” My hands trembled, and I quickly pulled off the motorway.

After 2005, the system enacted the strategy of “demoralise, divide and conquer”. The central publicity department started sending ­censors directly to major media organisations to carry out censorship prior to publication. The central government was therefore not only passing comment on news after publication, but had a pre-publication checkpoint. The dual system formed a pincer movement and provided a double safeguard.

Another policy was even more effective: the direct appointment of publicity department officials to leadership positions in major media organisations. Between 1996 and now, three news section directors in Guangdong’s publicity department have been promoted to senior positions in the Southern Newspaper Group. In other words, three news police chiefs took up editor-in-chief positions. This trend became even more evident in 2005. It was prevalent throughout China, but slower in Guangdong.

At the beginning of this year, to prevent trouble from Guangdong before and after the 18th party congress (which begins next month), especially from the Southern Newspaper Group, the deputy director of Guangdong’s publicity department, Yang Jian, was made party secretary of the Southern Newspaper Group. A diehard conservative official, Tuo Zhen, was flown in from Beijing and made a Guangdong CCP committee member and director of the publicity department. The leadership of Southern Newspaper Group, Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend began to reshuffle at this time. The key leaders were replaced by former publicity department officials. Central government authorities, through appointments and dismissals, reinforced their control over the group and its papers.

I had played a role in establishing the Beijing News. In 2005, not long after I was forced to resign from my post there as editor-in-chief, several censors came in. Southern Metropolis Daily has five censors who come and go. They are as detestable and odious as the negative characters in a film, but they hold real power, and have absolute control over what is sent to the printers.

Censorship happens secretly; it is silent and effective. By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership, and between higher- and lower-level media leaders. The only rule for subordinates is to be loyal to the higher leadership and not cause trouble for them. Accountability and respect have become more straightforward. In time, the media leadership and workers have become used to self-censorship. Members of staff can protect their jobs and personal interests by informing on and betraying others, and so this has become the principal management tool. The dark and dangerous sides of the human character have been exploited.

The situation is as follows. Distinguished media leaders are cleared out systematically, excellent journalists are targeted and removed, and even their supporters are completely marginalised. The subdued and obedient hold all the power. Censorship, like a virus, clones itself and spreads quickly; prohibition orders become stricter at every level. Self-censorship is much harsher than passive censorship. The fundamental principles of news reportage have been destroyed, and there is no longer any identifi­cation with values. Lowliness has become the only way to get by.

When Hu Jintao came to power, the Communist Party of China became more totalitarian. Under his leadership, it has raced ahead on the path of anti-universal values, anti-human rights, anti-democracy and anti-freedom. It opposes fairness and justice, and associates itself with evil and injustice.

This is a hidden danger in China’s low-cost and peaceful transition to democracy. So long as the central government upholds Hu Jintao’s ideas on governance, it will not be able to achieve true justice. Freedom of speech, with press freedom at its core, is as contrived as the Arabian Nights. The clampdown on media freedom and freedom of speech has become part of the systematic evil of China’s government. Under its strict control, the media have become tired and journalists are at their wits’ end. Media independence and freedom of speech seem increasingly far off, as does the possibility of integrity and ethics. We are moving ever further away from truth and justice.

Cheng Yizhong is a renowned journalist and media manager. He is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Chinese daily newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and the Beijing News. After Southern Metropolis Daily exposed Sun Zhigang’s confinement and fatal beating, as well as the truth about Sars, Cheng was detained in secret for more than five months by the Guangdong authorities in 2004 for “economic crimes”, before being released as innocent. He received the 2005 Unesco World Press Freedom Prize. He is now president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.

Cheng Yizhong is a journalist and media manager. He is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Chinese daily newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and the Beijing News, and current president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain