Travelers on the same highway

Last Thursday, the top press official of the largest country in the world, where 1,900 newspapers are read by about 140 million people, visited Kathimerini. Liu Binjie, minister of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, is literally responsible for all these newspapers and other media, because in China the news media are all state-controlled. Mr Liu and the other five members of a delegation of senior officials who represent their government’s news, copyright protection and anti-pornography agencies, are on the front line of developments. They were also the latest in a long stream of official visitors in the last few years. «For Greeks to be interested in China is understandable. But why should the Chinese be interested in Greece?» I asked, welcoming our guests. Mr Liu’s gracious reply contained the usual reasons, including Greece’s long history and culture, the shared experience of the Olympic Games and the beauty of our country. And he added, «We are interested in learning from everyone whatever we can.» This was no mere compliment; as everyone knows, the Chinese consume know-how like the rest of the world consumes their products. So, the only sphere in which we at Kathimerini could be of any use to our visitors was in a discussion on the Greek news media. On one side of the table sat the representatives of a country where newspaper readers alone are estimated at 140 million and Internet users are even more numerous. On the other side sat five people from Kathimerini, mainly the heads of the culture section. I said: «In Greece we are at the other extreme from what applies in your country. Here anyone can set up a newspaper or Internet site and present news, analyses and comments.» I continued: «As long as he or she has the money and the desire to sustain the effort. The judiciary intervenes only in cases of slander and libel, in copyright infringements and the publication of pornographic material. Otherwise, the news media, in all their forms, are completely free.» And in China? «We have some problems with the Internet,» Mr Liu said candidly through an interpreter. «We are making laws for the Internet. Generally, if the Internet does not harm national interests, or private interests, then we don’t touch it. Newspapers have their own sites. There are some private sites. But in China Internet sites and magazines can’t just start up, especially if they present news. News and politics can be found only in newspapers that are controlled by the state, so that social unrest can be avoided. But the Internet is developing very quickly. We have 170 million users. That makes us second in the world, after the United States. We pay a lot of attention to these networks. With a 24-hour news flow, it is very difficult for anyone to exercise control. There are many fake news items, especially regarding natural catastrophes. This is a problem for us – how to control it. We are making laws to make it function well but we are at an early stage.» And then, as if to underline the difficulty his government faces, he added: «We have 30 million students. They get whatever they want off the Internet.» What could we say, where on Sundays all our newspapers together sell about a million copies and on weekdays not even half of that? And yet… Because Greece is the complete antithesis of China, we had much to say. I imagine that our description of how the press functions in Greece was just as strange to our guests as their efforts to control the information tide appeared to us. Our guests were interested in the details of publishing in Greece. How many papers are profitable? What percentage of income is from advertising? Who owns the newspapers? What impact have free newspapers and the Internet had? And, of course, whenever press people get together (even if they come from completely different worlds) the big question is «How will newspapers survive?» There, Kathimerini from little Greece has a very simple message that arises from its long experience: Newspapers that have a reputation for credibility and seriousness will increase their market share even as the overall pie grows smaller. Readers need information that they can rely on, that they know is not colored by political or economic interests. Only in this way can newspapers survive – if they are not owned by the state.