International journalists were startled when Chinese officials prevented them from reporting some events at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea this week. It was a taste of the tactics China employs to shape media coverage of the country overseas.
When China’s president visited Papua New Guinea this week, he met with the leaders of eight Pacific Island nations.
As the ABC’s PNG correspondent Natalie Whiting noted, the Pacific is becoming increasingly important to other countries - including the US, Australia and New Zealand - also vying for influence in the region.
So it was definitely a newsworthy meeting.
On the first day, Xi Jinping opened Independence Boulevard in Port Moresby - a brand new six-lane highway paid for and built by China.
Critics called it “a road to nowhere” because it doesn’t go that far yet - but as a symbol of soft power it was pretty effective.
International media were told not to record the speeches. Only China Central Television (CCTV) was granted access, according to reports.
State-approved news agency Xinhua later released impressive aerial footage of the road on social media.
Road of friendship: China-assisted Independence Boulevard launched in Papua New Guinea pic.twitter.com/xntLNG3Oc1— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 17, 2018
“The Chinese official media traditionally portray Xi’s foreign travel in the best possible light, downplaying or ignoring any controversy. The coverage of APEC. . . followed that pattern,” Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported under the headline Nothing to see here.
There was no word of any APEC discord in China’s state media reports, said the paper.
China’s major news outlets are answerable to the State, and specifically the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In 2016, Xi Jinping visited the key state media - Xinhua, CCTV, People's Daily - and reminded them of this personally.
"All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity,” the state news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying.
Politics has always been off-limits, but last month a government directive to journalists in China named six economic topics to be “managed”.
But one part of China has rights and freedoms not in place in mainland China - including press freedom.
One country, two systems for the press
Since 1997, former British colony Hong Kong been a Special Autonomous Region of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).
Under the “one country two systems" policy press freedom enjoyed for decades is supposed to be protected.
But advocates for media freedom there now warn it is being undermined by China - politically and economically.
Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper - the South China Morning Post - was bought by the Alibaba Group, China’s equivalent of online retailer Amazon, in 2016.
The investment has breathed new life into the paper, but the New York Times said earlier this year Alibaba has also “given it a new mission: improving China’s image overseas and China’s efforts to project soft power abroad.”
Some critics say the paper is moving away from independent journalism and towards new form of propaganda.
This irritates the paper’s 36-year old chief executive Gary Liu, a former Google and Spotify employee who spent some of his high school years in New Zealand.
"Editorial independence is sacrosanct. Alibaba has never once in two years of ownership called or asked about a single story and I never expect them to," Gary Liu told a recent media summit at Singapore What is News Now?
Since then political influence in Hong Kong has become a hot topic too.
Last month The Financial Times said that its Asia editor Victor Mallet had been barred from entering Hong Kong.
"No reason was given for this decision, the first time a foreign journalist has been effectively expelled from Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese rule," said the FT.
Hong Kong authorities won’t say why, but Victor Mallet had angered them by chairing a recent a forum featuring Andy Chan, an advocate for Hong Kong‘s independence from China.
That’s one of the issues understood to be “a red line” for the government in Beijing which should not be crossed - by media or anyone.
At an official press conference, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam was challenged by Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of online news outlet Hong Kong Free Press.
“What is reporting and what is unlawful advocacy now?” he asked Carrie Lam.
She couldn’t tell him whether reporters were free to report on independence advocacy or not.
Hong Kong Free Press is a non-profit crowdfunded online outlet set up in the wake of the Umbrella Movement democracy protests in 2014.
“Most of the media in Hong Kong is now owned outright by the CCP or they have business interests in the mainland or they are own by a huge Chinese conglomerate like Alibaba,” Tom Grundy told Mediawatch.
“The SCMP hs a better place to work for their reporters. It’s awash with cash because it doesn’t have to make a profit. There’s a lot of innovation and some stories you don't expect from what has been quite conservative newspaper but they have done hundreds of news pieces about Alibaba,” he said.
He also highlights pro-Beijing editorials in the paper and a controversial interview with a Hong Kong bookseller detained in China, which was arranged with the Chinese authorities.
“If it’s true there have been no instructions from from Alibaba or Chinese authorities it's questionable why they would pawn their reputation and do stories like that,” said Tom Grundy.
“For the sake of Hong Kong, we need the SCMP to do well but now it has this mission of 'telling China’s story to the world. There are already numerous state-funded voices like the Global Times, Peoples Daily, Xinhua and CCTV telling positive stories about China,” Tom Grundy told Mediawatch.
Reporting within China
“There is a spectrum of media outlets in China. Some are closer to CCP but some others have a bit more independence such as Sixth Tone," said Tom Grundy.
"But when it comes to the really big topics like questioning anything to do with high-level politics, you’re not going to read those stories in the mainland press - and increasingly, not in the Hong Kong media,” said Tom Grundy.
Last month the ruling Conservative Party in the UK held a forum on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong during its annual conference. A Chinese reporter from CCTV noisily disrupted the event, slapped a delegate and was restrained and briefly detained by British police.
“Chinese journalists have been increasingly weaponised to not only spread the party line but attack opposing views,” freelance journalist Audrey Jiajia Li wrote in the SCMP.
When Audrey JiaJia Li spoke at the recent What is News Now conference in Singapore about the difficulties she encountered in reporting, she was challenged by a professor of journalism from Beijing.
“Even overseas - no matter how far away - you feel you are still being watched,” Audrey JiaJia Li said in a subsequent article about that exchange.
Prof. Minsu Wu from Communication University of China in Beijing accused of her of painting a dark, one-sided picture of censorship and restriction.
“She has never worked for media organisations in China. All her stories were dark ones so that is why I tried to rebut her. You have to be fair and square - both positive and negative in storytelling. But if it’s all dark, who would believe this?" Prof Misu Wu told Mediawatch.
She says reporters for China’s overseas media have more freedom to tell stories.
But that’s not so in China.
“There are problems in every country and censorship as well,” she said.
“News should sometimes be censored. Mainland China has such a huge population. If the news is fake or not trustworthy, chaos might happen,” she told Mediawatch.
Prof Minsu Wu urges New Zealanders to listen to China Radio International (CRI) and China Global Television Network (CGTN), the international arm of the state-run China Central TV.
CGTN reports out of New Zealand with former TVNZ reporter Owen Poland on business stories. It's currently advertising here for TV news directors to work for CGTN in Beijing
Recently the US Justice Department ordered CGTN and state-run Xinhua to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act which means they may soon have to join Russia-backed outlets RT and Sputnik outfits representing foreign governments.
But Minsu Wu says CGTN reports China stories to the world that the rest of the world’s media overlook or don't know how to tell.
"In recent years (reporting in China) has become increasingly difficult because of the pressure from the top - that the media should speak on behalf of the CCP," said Jocelyn Ford, an experienced a Beijing-based correspondent and former chair of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China who chaired the discussion on press freedom in China.
"Typically what the government says gets reported but there is still independent thinking,' she told Mediawatch
"I have been in China since 2001. Back then we would not have talked about whether a story is positive or negative for China. This has changed the framework from being: 'Is it fair and balanced and accurate?' to: 'Is it positive or negative for China?'. That is a huge problem," she said.
Jocelyn Ford says President Trump is doing this too in the US today.
"It's important for the media to point that out," she said.
Colin Peacock attended the East West Center’s international media conference “What is News Now?” held in Singapore with the assistance of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.