China steps up checks on quake reporting

New York, June 6, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that China has begun to restrict local and foreign coverage of the aftermath of the May 12 earthquake. Several international media outlets have reported the harassment and temporary detention of reporters at the hands of local officials.

The moves come after a brief period in which the government appeared to relax its normally tight restrictions. In the days immediately following the disaster, the government allowed unprecedented coverage of the quake and its impact.

The recent incidents appear to have been initiated by officials at the local level, although the Central Propaganda Department has continued to issue directives on what is allowed to appear in Chinese media about the quake, according to international news reports.

“The central government must work with local authorities to prevent harassment of journalists covering all aspects of the earthquake in Sichuan. The events set in motion by the May 12 earthquake are too vast and important to be covered up by silencing the media,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. 

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China in Beijing reported several incidents in the past several days, as quake coverage has begun to focus on the reaction of angry residents:

  • On Thursday police detained a three-person crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for three hours after the journalists attempted to report from outside the barricaded grounds of a middle school where many students had died.
  • On Wednesday, a Radio Netherlands journalist and a reporter with the Dutch publishing group Elsevier were turned back at a police checkpoint leading into Dujiangyan, a badly affected city about 30 miles from Chengdu, capital of China’s western Sichuan province. They were later barred from a collapsed middle school where parents had been congregating since the earthquake.
  • On Tuesday a reporter and photographer from Kyodo News were detained as they were covering a story on parents trying to file a lawsuit over the deaths of students at a collapsed school. The pair, told they were being detained for their own safety, were released about two hours later.
  • Also on Tuesday, a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press were detained near the same place for 30 minutes and told to stop covering the parents’ protests.
  • On Monday, police forcibly removed Christian Science Monitor correspondent Peter Ford and his Chinese assistant from a meeting between local officials and bereaved parents of children who died in the Juyuan middle school.  

Mark Magnier, a Los Angeles Times reporter in the quake area, said the restrictions are not uniformly applied, and at times Chinese and foreign reporters have been able to cover situations without police harassment.

David Bandurski, an analyst for the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, said politburo member Li Changchun told state media to emphasize positive news when he met journalists in Sichuan province on June 2.

“Since President Hu Jintao’s visit to the quake zone, the tone of much coverage has shifted toward heroism, encouragement, and emotional appeals for unity,” Bandurski, who monitors the mainland press, told CPJ today by e-mail. “But it is too early to say the atmosphere for reporting has shifted 180 degrees, and media, including commercial media, continue to report actively.” Hu traveled to the quake zone on May 16.

China Digital Times, a news Web site based in Berkley, Calif., noted that sensitive information about the earthquake, such as allegedly shoddy school construction, was difficult to totally suppress online. The site translated excerpts of an unnamed Chinese reporter’s blog that sidestepped official reporting regulations: “This is the first time I have violated my professional rules, and publicized unpublished interview materials from my work on my blog,” the reporter wrote.    

China had promised to ease restrictions on foreign reporters in January 2007, allowing them greater freedom to travel around the country and interview anyone who would speak with them. The move came as part of the country’s pledge for open media coverage in time for the 2008 Olympic Games in August. But officials failed to adhere to the new rules following March antigovernment demonstrations in Tibet that turned violent. Foreign correspondents were barred from traveling to Tibet and neighboring provinces.

CPJ detailed China’s failure to meet its Olympic promises in the special report, Falling Short, issued this week.