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A Wave of Red Hits the News

by Sasha A. Rae -- The Frustrated Journalist Monday, Apr. 24, 2006 at 8:02 PM
frustrated.journalist@gmail.com

In China, propaganda dominates the airwaves and the publications, freedom is not a cherished idea, and dissent automatically leads to incarceration or death. The media is just another arm of one of the most oppressive governments in the world. In America, we watch our rights to free speech and to a responsible media system dwindle. We aren't as bad as China yet, but we certainly aren't the democracy we used to be. It's time to take action through more grassroots media work and through enacting legislative reforms for mainstream media. // Copyright 2006, Sasha A. Rae, All Rights Reserved

A wave of red ink wielded by the communist Chinese government, that is. Recently I lived in China for eight months as an English teacher and I saw firsthand how much the government there restricts vital information, even health-related information that could help protects its citizens. Two major health stories pop into my mind right away. In the last two months of 2005, two critical stories didn't reach the media in western China: a major chemical spill that polluted the river not two hours from where I lived and the increasing progression of avian influenza which had reached my province. More recently, the Chinese government arrested a man for allegedly spreading rumors about another chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water near his town. Never mind that the information was true. He was disrupting the public peace and now he's in jail for who knows how long or even if they'll release him.

Other stories of protesting and rebellions seldom reach the eyes and ears of the average citizen. Right now, the government is actively ceasing the lands of farmers mostly located in southwestern China. The farmers have begun rioting because, when the government takes the land back, the farmers not only lose their homes and their livelihoods, but they also don't receive any real compensation. They have no political or legal recourse. It's a long story with many details I won't get into, but the truth is that most of the newspapers and stations in China don't cover stories like this one. What riot? What protest? That doesn't happen in China.

Most citizens in China view their country as a peaceful, harmonious land where nothing bad happens. I only knew what was happening because I received daily e-newsletters from the New York Times, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia. I'm lucky that I did receive those emails because the Chinese government has blocked several websites, including VOA and RFA, wikipedia and blogspot blogs.

EXPANDING THE REACH OF EDUCATION

The trend of censorship spreads into Chinese classrooms as well. To aid China's economic growth and to increase their competitive advantage in the world, the government requires every college student to pass a standardized English exam. China is also bringing more and more native English speakers into their schools to share both the English language and Western culture with the students. Only the government doesn't really want us to share the culture, at least the parts of it that conflict with communism. That doesn't leave a lot of room for creativity. Then again, they don't place a high value on creativity or individuality in China.

I received a list of topics I could not cover in my classes. The three T's topped the list: Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and Taiwan were off limits. You can't cover any material related to Chinese politics or freedom of the press. You can't say anything bad about Mao or about the Chinese government. All of these subjects are taboo and could result in you being asked to leave your job. Maybe even the country. The government threatens dissidents and monitors the citizens closely for misbehavior. As for me, my school tapped my phone line, read my emails, and went through both my apartment and my trash on a regular basis. In essence, they violated our agreement from the first day. They also made it clear that freedom, respect, and privacy do not exist in this country. But how far is America from becoming this way? Surveillance is just one way to intimidate citizens into submission.

CHANGING TRENDS IN AMERICAN MEDIA

From the mass homogenization of culture through globalization to the restriction and manipulation of information, corporate superpowers not only affect our personal daily lives on a very intimate level, but they also determine the course of politics worldwide. In the past ten years, media ownership has narrowed down to just five major corporations owning over 80% of the media in America. With this consolidation, the information disseminated to the public through news and programming has also narrowed. We only hear what the major corporations want us to hear unless we search through alternative publications looking for the truth. The media in America no longer serves the public interest. We have streamlined media at the expense of a diversity of political viewpoints and news sources.

The first step to any long-lasting change is to raise public awareness of big issues. Grassroots media sources offer a way for journalist and citizens alike to publish information on important issues we don't see in the mainstream media. There are plenty of avenues for publishing and airing information. Anyone can get a show at a university radio station or get his or her own cable show. Independent newspapers abound in many cities and towns. Personally, I have worked in and out of the media as a reporter, producer, and manager of radio stations, but I got more closely involved in grassroots activism last year. Since I lived in Palo Alto, California, at the time, I started producing my own radio show through KZSU radio station at Stanford University. My show focused on larger sociological issues, including interviews with organizations such as Project Censored, an organization at Sonoma State University dedicated to unveiling stories not covered in mainstream American media. I also spoke with the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Columbia Journalism Review, Grade the News, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. What I found in all of my research and through these contacts is that America does indeed have a large contingency of people working to reform the failing media system. I also discovered that most of these organizations are under-funded and largely understaffed. While each organization is making great progress with their work, we need to take a more consolidated, cooperative approach to remedy the corruption in the current media system.

THE FINAL SOLUTION

But we have to do more than publish our own papers or create our own shows in response to the negligence of the mainstream media. We need to examine the deregulation of the media and work together to enact legislative reforms. We can do this by working together on campaigns and petitions, by talking to our Senators and Representatives. We have to do solid research and find sound reasoning to support our proposed laws, laws that put the emphasis in the media back on serving the public interest instead of serving the pocketbooks of the CEOs who run the major media corporations. I'm not sure how to do this yet, but I do know that if we don't work together on solving this problem, it's only going to get worse.

Since the first step to creating any change is to raise awareness, that's what I'll be working on when I return to the United States this fall. Hopefully I'll end up working with other media activist groups and ultimately enacting some legislative reforms. China opened my eyes to how dangerous it is to suppress information and it's time to protect the freedom of speech we have been losing in America.

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