Equipment by French group Thales is used to jam foreign radio
broadcasts while US firm Cisco's technology-savvy machinery censors internet messages and helps Beijing track down Chinese cyber dissidents, according to g
roups meeting at a forum on China's Media Meltdown in Washington.

American search engine giant Yahoo! agreed recently under court order to provide information that the Chinese authorities then used to track down and jail a journalist critical of the administration, the groups said.

"We are very concerned by Western companies collaborating with China" in restricting media freedom, said Lucie Morillon, the head of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders' Washington office.

"China is actually one of a few countries able to expand online
activities and at the same time censor all the content that
criticise government," she said, citing aggressive marketing by
Western companies aiming to capture the 100 million-strong Chinese internet market.

Business practices

Morillon said Reporters Without Borders was seeking agreement with about 20 American and European investment firms to "monitor business practices implemented in China and other repressive countries by internet sector companies".

While Western governments are increasingly critical of media and other curbs to freedom in China, their companies have been accused of looking the other way as they attempt to penetrate the lucrative market of the world's most populous nation.

New leaders have allowed more
coverage of common problems

US lawmaker Thaddeus McCotter told the forum that it would be sad if freedom-loving Western nations were accused by the Chinese as having helped their government "spy upon them and imprison them and keep them from having a free media.

"At what point does the West - not just the US - have to (do) our duty to stand as one with our fellow human beings to be free, at what point do we realise that profits are not an acceptable replacement for principles," asked McCotter, a Republican member of the House of Representatives.

Dan Southerland, the vice-president and executive editor of Radio Free Asia which runs over nine different broadcast services across the region, said equipment provided by Thales allowed China to jam its broadcasts.

"They are blocking our internet site and also jamming our transmitter signals. It is a big struggle over the air waves daily," he said.

Dedicated listeners

"We broadcast on numerous frequencies so that people might find one that is getting through. We do have very dedicated listeners who have to work at it to get us," Southerland said.

But he said that under President Hu Jintao, the government had allowed more coverage of problems affecting ordinary citizens' daily lives, such as natural disaster death tolls, robberies, traffic accidents and health problems.

China arrested a journalist using
information provided by Yahoo!

The "taboo list" includes debate on power struggles within the top leadership, high-level corruption and unrest among farmers and workers, he said.

Shao Zheng, a Chinese embassy official who attended the forum, said it was unfair to compare media freedom in China, where about 400 to 500 foreign correspondents were based, with that in Western societies.

For example, he said, the Chinese spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry gave two press conferences every week compared to 1983, "when we had only one press conference every month and without any questions and answers".

"The press freedom in China may not be so perfect but we are improving from day to day. And looking at other countries, we are trying to learn more and we are confident that in the future we can do a better job," he told AFP.

More development

Zheng said: "China is a developing country and its economic development will be accompanied by more social and more other development."

But John Tkacik, a former US State Department official who spent a decade working in China, disputed Shao's contention. Since the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, economic reforms seemed to have increased "exponentially" but not democractic freedom, he said.

"The linkage between economic freedom and democratic reforms doesn't exist in China," he said.

"The news media in China will be the last sector that will be reformed," said Arnold Zeitlin, an American visiting professor with the school of journalism and communication at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.