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Chinese press freedom: battle of the ‘paos

Posted by: | September 30, 2009 | No Comment |

Johann Gutenberg‘s name — and the year 1450 — will forever be linked to the printing press, but there is more credit to go around. Chinese civilizations introduced movable type in 950, according to the chronological timeline in Mitchell Stephens‘ “A History of News.”

As it follows, early Chinese news publication systems were some of the first to experience issues of government censorship and press freedom. In class, we repeatedly mention the tipao, Chinese newsletters containing reports on the court system and government officials. In practice, it was much like the early Roman acta.

So while tipao eventually became the staple of the “Bureau of Official Reports” during the T’ang dynasty, it’s availability to the public was very limited or nonexistent, according to Stephens.

In came the hsiaopao, which doesn’t particularly define any single type of publication, but signifies a new phenomenon — public journalism. This caused quite a stir in a world where tipao were previously the only source of information. Now, “sensational news” was circulating and “misleading” the common public.

— Chinese newspapers have come a long way from the days of government vs. press freedom laws. (Picture taken from Web site of John Wai Kung Fu Academy.) —

Hsiaopao were stories that were leaked from official sources. Being small news ventures run by the seemingly out-of-the-loop public, they sometimes contained falsities and sensational news — hsiaopao are said to be the original form of tabloids. According to Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, hsiaopao employed “private reporters” who served the readers’ “feverish demand for up-to-date news.” Clearly, there was a market for competition developing.

Hsiaopao were developed to combat the elite’s tipao and to spread news to peasants. It’s days were numbered, however, as Confucian scholar Chou Lin Chih wrote a letter to the government in 1160 urging censorship. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“The news from Hsiao Pao is often inaccurate or even groundless fabrication but scholars at the capital would say, on hearing such news, ‘we have already seen in the Hsiao Pao’, and magistrates in the countryside would say on hearing the news, ‘we have received the Hsiao Pao already’. If it were true, the news should not have been permitted to leak out, and if it were false, it was misleading. […] I humbly petition that Your Majesty should issue an edict prohibiting their circulation with definite forms of punishment attached to it.”

And there’s an early example of government censorship and violations of First Amendment rights, which obviously were nonexistent at that point in time. Once again, these ideas originated in China, the home of movable type and the first place to tackle the issue of press freedom.

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