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Asia Minute: International News Coverage of Tiananmen Square

AP Photo/Jeff Widener

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. Much of the coverage centers on memories of that bloody night, and how its impact is still felt today. Another part of the story is the international media itself, and why so many of them were in Beijing at that time.

An unusual number of international journalists were gathered in Beijing in mid-May, 1989 — as a growing number of demonstrators jammed into Tiananmen Square. Camera crews were there for the May 15th visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

That’s why the Chinese government had granted far more media visas than it usually would at one time – hoping for positive coverage of the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years.

Networks from the BBC to CBS and CNN were on the air with live coverage during May as protests grew – until the Chinese government pulled the plug on live satellite transmission a couple of weeks before the deadly crackdown.

In the years since, for international journalists covering China, Tiananmen Square has been a taboo topic. It’s part of what some call the “three T’s and the F:” Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, and the spiritual movement known as Falun Gong.

These are topics the Chinese government will not discuss in detail with international journalists, and for domestic journalists, asking too many questions in these areas will get you into trouble — and potentially into prison.

In recent years, treatment of the Muslim Uyghar community has been added to that unwritten list.

This week, Reporters Without Borders updated its count of Chinese journalists detained for covering this story to 111 . . . including 58 reporters, editors and publishers from the Xinjiang region of northwest China.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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