Rights Group: Chinese Gov't. Suppressed iPod Foxconn Story

A report published today by the global journalists' rights group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières), written by a Chinese technician writing under the pseudonym "Mr. Tao," reveals the existence of a government bureau there given the authority to designate which news stories are presentable to the public and which are not. The criteria for this bureau's judgment, Mr. Tao writes, are presented to look like "public opinion" played a role; but in one case, the bureau may have intervened to stop the spread of a negative story on a principal supplier of iPod parts.

In June 2006, a report first appeared in China Business Daily on the working conditions of laborers at the Foxconn facility on the Chinese mainland where iPod parts were being made. The report which was translated for the British Daily Mail told the story of a plant that hired mostly women in the mistaken belief that they're "more honest" and less likely to complain, and then forced them to work for 15 hours per day, sleep in barracks housing more than 100 per unit, for wages approximating $51 per month.

Apple took the report seriously, launching an investigation the following August that concluded Foxconn was indeed in violation of Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct. Two weeks later, the manufacturer's parent company, Hon Hai, sued the journalists -- not the newspaper -- who broke the story.

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The Chinese government then froze the assets of the two journalists in question, on the basis that they were freelancers, and could therefore be judged liable for misrepresentation under Chinese law, rather than the publisher.

But in an unusual turn of events the following week, Foxconn - a Taiwanese company - settled its dispute with the journalists in question. Perhaps not coincidentally, at approximately the same time, the Reporters Without Borders document now alleges (English-language PDF available here), the Beijing-based Internet Information Administrative Bureau apparently warned Chinese Web sites via SMS not to publish news on the settlement.

"Do not disseminate reports about the Foxconn case so that it is not exploited by those who want independence to advance their cause," the warning read, according to Mr. Tao.

If these allegations prove accurate, it would be not only the first but perhaps also a very rare case of a Chinese government agency manipulating news reports in order to benefit the financial standing of a Taiwanese company that conducts operations there.

But the Bureau's efforts apparently did not stop at the two Chinas' mutual borders. As the report suggests, they were also intended to temper how the rest of the world's press treated the story from then on. Those efforts were somewhat successful, as news outlets reported the settlement as an amicable affair, rather than as a successful suppression of reporters' ability to disseminate vital information.

As Mr. Tao's document goes on to describe, there are 19 state-selected commercial Web sites headquartered in Beijing permitted to publish news there. But ever since its establishment in November 2005, the state-run Bureau holds a meeting every morning with representatives of all 19 outlets, selecting for them each and every day which stories they can run and which they cannot.

"The employees of the 19 leading Beijing-based websites attend a meeting at the Internet Information Administrative Bureau every Friday morning from 9 to 11," Mr. Tao writes, "at which all the subjects that most interested Internet users that week are evaluated and bureau members criticize some sites. Then the bureau members announce the subjects to be covered in the coming week, the articles to be written under their supervision, and the articles to be eliminated."

The Bureau rates the relative standing of these sites on a points system, the report continued. When a new site is licensed, it's granted a designated number of "license points," which may be removed when a site disobeys a rule - such as, for instance, sourcing a news story from an outlet other than the state-approved Xinhua agency.

Sites that have lost points are given the opportunity to make them up by performing special tasks, at the discretion of Bureau officials, the nature of which Mr. Tao didn't specify. Apparently everyone's relative points standing is made known to every other site, probably during the morning meetings, perhaps as incentive for slackers to keep up.

And in an amazing revelation, Mr. Tao states that prior to suppressing or censoring readers' responses to news stories, the Bureau may actually be relying upon them to alert the Bureau to stories that should, in the future, be toned down or suppressed. In other words, were it not for some level of public outcry, the Bureau might not be able on its own to detect which stories generate the most outcry and are thus most worthy of censorship.

"Either on their own initiative or on orders from above, the bureau's members remind websites of the importance of political and social stability in China as soon as a story grabs the attention of the online media or public opinion," writes Mr. Tao. "They ask the websites to remove the story, or move it to a less prominent position, put a stop to comments and to hide or suppress any new developments in the story, or to posts an article written by the bureau."

In one of the report's many examples of the types of information dissemination requests placed by the Bureau, deputy director Fan Tao (apparently no relation) asks Web sites to please cover the fact that Beijing taxi cabs did increase their fares, but to do so very, very carefully.

"The website Qianlong has already posted a news report about a change in the increase in Beijing taxi fare," states a message from Fan Tao. "All sites are asked to put it in their news section, but not in a prominent position, to not put it on their front page, and to stop comments on the subject."

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