June 1, 2009
A protester halts army tanks near Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/Courtesy The Associated Press.)

A protester halts army tanks near Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/Courtesy The Associated Press.)

Tiananmen Square Uprising: Technology Kept News Flowing

Twenty years ago this week, the world was riveted by startling images coming out of the People’s Republic of China: tens of thousands of students protesting for freedom and democracy in Beijng’s Tiananmen Square.

With them stood a 40-foot-tall statue — called the Goddess of Democracy — created out of foam and papier-mâché by students of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and modeled after the Statue of Liberty. The protests, sparked by the death in April of a pro-reform state official, had escalated from mourning observances into a seven-week movement that prompted martial law and left several hundred protesters dead.

The international media, initially in Beijing to cover the state visit in May of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, found themselves thrust into demonstrations and a government crackdown, which they covered live. They were there when the tanks rolled into the square and as a defiant protester boldly stood in front of them to halt their advance.

The Chinese government banned all foreign news coverage, shutting down satellite transmissions and detaining journalists who did not comply. Reporters got around the ban by reporting by mobile telephone. Students in China’s pro-democracy movement kept the news flowing by fax machines and electronic mail connections. Technology managed to open Chinese repressions to the world, despite government censorship and the removal of news correspondents.

The protests ended June 4 when army tanks cleared the square. The Goddess of Democracy was destroyed; a replica is currently displayed in the Newseum’s Time Warner World News Gallery. By the end of the year, the communist government in East Germany collapsed and with it, the Berlin Wall. Two years later, the world witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union.

A Newseum map that highlights press freedom around the world and is updated each year shows that the press in China, 20 years after the Tiananmen Square protests, is still not free.

Join us Sunday, June 7, in the Time Warner World News Gallery on Level 3 for Gallery Talks on Chinese media and government censorship. Gallery Talks are at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

Related story: Online Censorship Poses Olympic Challenge for Journalists

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