A New York-based Chinese-language TV station that broke the news on the SARS epidemic in China and infuriated Chinese authorities with uncensored news reports is now fighting to stay on the air. The Beijing-owned China Satellite Communication Corp. sent a letter to the European satellite provider Eutelsat last May requesting that this station, New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), be pulled from Eutelsat’s networks. Facing pressure from China again this year, Eutelsat announced that NTDTV transmission will be cut as of April 15. This is sobering news for anyone who believes in press freedom.
What makes this case unique, however, is that NTDTV remains the only independent Chinese-language satellite station that can broadcast uncensored news to millions of viewers in China. It’s famous for putting the spotlight on hot issues like human rights, economic development and corruption, Falun Gong persecution, Article 23 in Hong Kong, the recent death of former Chinese leader (and sympathizer to 1989 Tiananmen protesters) Zhao Ziyang, and the future of China’s Communist Party. Viewers in China love NTDTV for delivering “real news,” and some people even bought a satellite dish with their savings to watch news on the sly. Obviously, the Chinese authorities are fuming over what they consider a flagrant breach of the government’s news monopoly and threatened Eutelsat to pull the plug on NTDTV.
But here is where the story gets interesting. An April 13 Wall Street Journal article revealed that the censorship wasn’t one-sided; Eutelsat had envisioned NTDTV as a pawn in the company’s strategic plan to expand in China. By first taking on NTDTV and then indicating to Beijing its willingness to cut the station, the company succeeded in landing previously elusive business agreements with ChinaSatcom, one of the state-owned Chinese telecommunications companies. In other words, this is a freedom-of-press blackmail, which is even more effective than nuclear blackmail against a regime fearful of losing power. However, the company’s strategy backfired when this behind-the-scenes maneuvering came to light. Sixty-five members of European Parliament sent letters to Eutelsat, urging the company to keep ajar the “open satellite window” over China.
Another twist to the story is that the French company Eutelsat is actually the largest satellite provider to the Pentagon, carrying 40 percent of its government programs in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. So what’s at stake is not only press freedom but also the security of U.S. government communications in the war on terror. According to the WSJ article, Eutelsat’s pitch to the U.S. government is that unless the United States buys up even more air space, the company will go with China’s offer of business and drop NTDTV. This implies that if the Chinese government — working in tandem with the French government in pressuring Eutelsat — succeeds in gaining editorial discretion over what gets aired on Eutelsat networks, it will certainly have a leg up in influencing the U.S. programs in Iraq. Perhaps wary of the recent U.S. furor over Europe’s planned suspension of the arms ban to China, Eutelsat hired a PR firm to actively defend itself in Washington. Ironically, this contradicts Eutelsat’s official statement that the move to cut NTDTV was purely a business decision.
All this intrigue ultimately trickles down to the average American, because the U.S. government contracts with Eutelsat come out of U.S. taxpayers’ pockets. In a bipartisan letter to President Bush signed by 93 congressmen, the signatories argue that American taxpayers do not have to fund unethical companies like Eutelsat that discriminate against independent media and curry favor with repressive governments.
As the April 15 deadline of NTDTV shutdown approaches, what seemed like a simple “business decision” now involves media censorship affecting millions of viewers in China, the tax dollars of our parents and troubling questions on where to draw the lines between press, profits and politics. But one thing is clear: The people who will be hit the hardest by this deal are the Chinese viewers who want uncensored and independent news coverage. What is less clear is that we in the United States have a lot at stake too, from U.S. programs on Eutelsat to the rules and ethics governing U.S. media conglomerates. Silencing NTDTV may only be one small step for Eutelsat toward opening up new space in the largely state-owned Chinese media market, but it will be a significant setback for any country concerned about globalizing the free flow of information.
Hao Wang is a sophomore in Morse College.