It is new only because the invitation comes from China through “private organizations.” For decades a similar grant, but for trips to the United States, was offered by the American state department’s Visitor’s Program and accepted by a number of local newspaper and broadcast practitioners. What is strikingly different is that China’s VP offers glimpses into how media under an autocratic government works.
SINCE 2016, a number of mainstream media workers from Cebu have been attending media seminars in China, sponsored purportedly by private institutions through the Chinese consulate office in Cebu.
The latest was organized at the behest of the China International Publishing Group and was held between June 18 and July 19 in Beijing, said Fred Languido who, together with Carlo Lorenciana of “The Freeman” daily newspaper and former “Banat News” editor John Rey Saavedra, who now works with the government-run Philippine News Agency, were among the attendees.
There were other participants, both journalists and state-employed information officers, from other parts of the Philippines and from six other countries: Iran, Palestine, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The irony – autocratic China hosting a media event for journalists of mostly democratic countries – must not have been lost, especially to the Filipino journalists, who work with the “freest and most robust” media industry in Southeast Asia.
The visitor’s program is apparently new to China and to local journalists who are more familiar with the US state-department-sponsored International Visitor’s Program which had run for decades until the late nineties. If the VP is right under American sponsorship, why must it be odd if the grant comes from China?
Background on censorship
Censorship, repugnant to the concept of journalism in any country that exercises free speech, reportedly never sleeps in China. Invisible eyes constantly pry on those who refuse to spread the party’s views, journalists and citizens alike.
“What they’re looking out for are key words and expressions popping up in social media. Anything signaling an intention to protest or ridiculing the country’s senior political figures will be blocked and potentially see a user reported to the authorities,” Stephen McDonell of BBC reported on Oct. 16, 2017.
Human rights abuses have been persistent in China, pro-democracy institutions note.
A portion of the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018 said, “China went after nearly all forms of political opposition, threatening detention, forced disappearances, violence and even state-sanctioned killings against ‘journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners.”
Lu Kang, then China’s foreign minister spokesperson, disputed the report, saying “remarkable progress has been made in China’s human rights cause” (Newsweek.com, March 14, 2019).
Human Rights Watch though, in its World Report 2019, said, “Chinese authorities continue to harass and detain journalists who cover human rights issues, as well as their interviewees…Authorities expanded their internet censorship regime to suppress politically sensitive information and ‘vulgar’ content.”
Not told on how to cover
To the visiting journalists from Cebu, the trip was “not limited to media work.” Freeman news editor Languido said it included activities to promote the “traditional friendship and cooperation between China and other developing countries” as well as the promotion of “human resource development and economic and social development.”
Discussions also included China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” China’s economic and social progress, the country’s communist governance, its foreign policy, and its central government-led media industry. Saavedra said the Chinese Government “seems to utilize both the state-owned and private media firms in information dissemination.”
“There were also exchanges of information among the delegates on the development of the media industry of our respective countries,” Lorenciana said.
But the Cebu media practitioners, whose short stint was not actually to report on China, said they were not told how to cover China-related affairs. Aside from broadening their knowledge about China, perhaps the new insight may help improve coverage of Chinese nationals involved in news incidents in the Philippines.
Veteran Superbalita Cebu reporter-editor Flor Querubin, who joined an earlier group, said her trip was a great eye-opener. She said she was “greatly impressed” by Chinese media’s digital integration.
“China’s media industry is into digital platform in providing news information and entertainment to their audience,” she said. “Shows are mostly streamed through internet/web applications.”
Querubin and her fellow delegates were exposed Chinese history, culture and heritage, and were given educational tours in different media companies in the big cities of Beijing and Shenzen.
King Anthony Perez, then writing for “Cebu Daily News,” joined the batch in 2018 with dyRC anchorman Romeo Marantal.
“What was shown was the positive side of China, especially in their innovation in mass media,” Perez says of the trip. “It was a presentation of their model—the state-run media is working in their country.”
But if Querubin only found her trip eye-opening, and Perez’s informative, Lorenciana, a business reporter who now works with SunStar Cebu, said the trip redefined for him the concept of developmental journalism.
“(The) Communist Party-led state uses the media to further the development of the nation through communication.”
Framing China and its press
To Languido though, the razzle-dazzle does not obscure the obvious – China’s media “is still state-controlled” and “publications and broadcast stations (local and national) are managed by people appointed by the government.”
“They claim to have editorial independence but they have laws to follow. Editors and media executives are held accountable for any negative news report,” he said.
As to the difference between Chinese media and Philippine media, Languido said it is obvious. “Philippine media is independent of government. We are subject to government regulations and libel and contempt laws, broadcast media needs congressional franchise, but we are relatively free to report matters of public interest. We are free to criticize the government,” he said.
Saavedra, now in the shoes of a publicist working for the government, framed it differently and with his nuance: China has simply earned a bad reputation, perhaps a victim of propaganda. “Chinese editors believe it is their moral obligation to report what is true and what is not destructive,” he said. “If we continue to hang on to the ‘negative image’ of the Chinese and their government without painstakingly probing how they live and what they do as a people, we must be misjudging them.”
Querubin visited China on May 15-30, 2019 upon the invitation of the China State Council Information Office through the agency’s counterpart in the Philippines, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).
She was in the company of Luzon-based journalists from iOrbit News, The Manila Times, Centro News and Pulso Ng Makabagong Caviteño. Other participants were from government media: People’s Television Network, Philippine News Agency, Radio Television Malacañang and Philippine Information Agency.
Superbalita Cebu editor Rolando Morallo and Cris Evert Lato-Ruffolo of Cebu Daily News also attended a media seminar in July 2016. The Communication University of China in Beijing sponsored the event through the Chinese consulate in Cebu.
Radio dyLA reporter and Freeman correspondent Le Antojado and DyHP news presenter Khen Galinea participated in 2017.
[KEVIN A. LAGUNDA works as news reporter and sub-editor at SunStar Cebu. He writes on special assignment for CJJ Magazine Online.]