GENEVA – Chinese officials denied Monday that the country censors news, telling a U.N. review of China's human rights record that citizens are free to express their opinions in the press without fear of retribution.
The statements to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva contrasted starkly with claims by rights groups that the government in Beijing persecutes those who speak out against it in public.
It also contradicts ample evidence that China has blocked foreign and domestic Web sites, including those of The New York Times, the British Broadcasting Corp., and Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper.
"China's law guarantees citizens freedom of speech and expression," Li Wufeng of China's State Council Information Office said.
"The government encourages the media to play its role as a watchdog, and there is no censorship in the country," he added, citing extensive reporting of a recent scandal over tainted baby milk as an example that negative news is not suppressed.
But Li acknowledged that some Web sites might be blocked because they contain what is deemed to be illegal content.
"Chinese law prohibits the use of the Internet or other mass media for creating rumors or instigating the subversion of government or splitting national territory," Li said.
Li said people are free to speak to reporters without risking penalties and the government is not responsible for intimidating journalists.
Jo Glanville, editor of London-based magazine Index on Censorship, which documents cases of media repression around the world, said she was surprised by China's claim.
"Any journalist who dares to deviate from the official line risks losing their job, or worse," she said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
"I'm not sure who the Chinese think they are likely to convince with this statement, other than their own news agencies who will be obliged to disseminate this charade."
Human Rights Watch, which submitted a report on China to the U.N. last year, says Chinese citizens who speak to journalists about abuse at the hands of officials are threatened and face arbitrary arrest.
Juliette de Rivero, a spokeswoman for the New York-based group, told reporters after the meeting that censorship is the rule in China.
"It's ludicrous for the government to stand in front of the international community and say anything contrary to that," she said.
De Rivero said evidence of censorship was particularly blatant in the case of the Tibet.
Journalists and human rights activists who tried to report on a crackdown by authorities in Tibet last year following anti-government protests were severely hampered and in some cases barred from entering the semiautonomous region.
Tibetan groups say hundreds of people were locked up and tortured during the crackdown, a claim the government denies.
"China is firmly against torture and other inhumane treatment and would never allow torture to be used on ethnic groups, religious believers or other groups," said Song Hansong of China's highest prosecutor's office.
Ngawang Choephel of the group Tibetan U.N. advocacy said China should open Tibet to foreign reporters and rights activists so they can see for themselves.
Complaints about censorship have long been a thorn in the side of the Communist-run government as it seeks to portray China as a dynamic, prosperous country and growing power on the global stage.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has recorded on its Web site more than 335 cases of violence, detention and other harassment of reporters and their contacts since the beginning of 2007.
Beijing loosened some media and Internet controls during the 2008 Summer Olympics, with the aim of showing that the games had brought greater freedom to the Chinese people.
China's appearance before the U.N. review panel Monday generated considerable interest among diplomats and non-governmental organizations.
Some 118 countries began queuing early Friday for the chance to speak during the three-hour meeting. In the end, only 60 were able to do so.
Canada and Australia criticized Beijing for its extensive use of the death penalty, and for continuing to place people who have committed administrative offenses in labor camps.
The Chinese delegation, led by Ambassador Li Baodong told the 47-member council, that there are 320 such camps in China with some 170,000 inmates.
The council will publish a report on China's rights record Wednesday, based on the comments it received from governments and rights groups. Recommendations contained in the report are not binding.
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