China plans restrictions on reporting of disasters

New York, June 26, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by a proposed law that would subject news outlets to fines for reporting on natural disasters, riots, and other emergencies without official approval. The draft law is under review by the country’s legislature, according to state media.

“The media have an important and potentially life-saving role in reporting health crises, natural disasters and other incidents of public concern that officials often have an interest in concealing,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We stand by our colleagues in China who have urged authorities to scrap this proposal and allow journalists to do their job.”

Under the draft law, news outlets face fines up to 100,000 yuan (US$12,500) for the unauthorized reporting of public emergencies. They would also be fined for falsely reporting news of disasters.

The proposal stipulates that officials would be fined if they failed to report emergencies to their superiors. It goes on to say that the news should not be released to the public if the information could “jeopardize the handling of emergencies,” Xinhua News Agency reported. These events could include news of health and environmental crises, mining disasters, riots and demonstrations, and natural disasters, according to international news reports.

Several bloggers and media critics in mainland China blasted the proposal. The Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News published an editorial calling the draft law “a step backward” and citing the media’s role in exposing government cover-ups of recent mining disasters.

“Using the law to affirm government control over the administration of news outlets is an utterly dangerous endeavor,” said the editorial, attributed to writer Chang Ping, possibly a pseudonym.

Two former staff members of Southern Metropolis News, Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, are currently serving prison terms of eight and six years, respectively, after the newspaper’s aggressive reporting on public issues, including SARS, sparked the ire of authorities.

The proposal furthers attempts by the administration of Chinese President Hu Jintao to restrict reporting by China’s increasingly market-driven press. In May, CPJ reported that the government has undertaken a massive campaign to conceal news of increasingly common “mass incidents”—riots, demonstrations, and unrest that have marked China’s booming development. Read the story.