One year on, China stifles reporting on earthquake victims

New York, May 11, 2009–After the recent harassment of several foreign journalists and the arrest of least one local writer, the Committee to Protect Journalists today called on authorities in Sichuan province to allow journalists to report freely in the area on the one-year anniversary of the devastating May 12, 2008, earthquake. 

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) logged at least three incidents of harassment in the area in April and warned journalists in a statement on May 6 that Sichuan was becoming “more volatile.” In the past week, several international news outlets have reported that police and other unidentified individuals have obstructed them while they were trying to interview parents whose children were killed in the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings:

  • Ten people pushed Finnish TV journalist Katri Makkonen and tried to confiscate her equipment on May 6, according to the FCCC.
  • Unidentified men harassed Financial Times journalist Jamil Anderlini and damaged his equipment on May 5 and May 6. Footage of the first of these incidents is available on The Financial Times Web site.
  • A reporter for Britain’s The Independent, Clifford Coonan, said in a May 7 article that he had been briefly detained and forbidden from conducting interviews.

A Chinese official denied receiving complaints of mistreatment from international reporters and said some foreign media had been trying to incite organized rebellion in the quake zone, according to The Financial Times.

On March 28, public security officials arrested Sichuan writer and activist Tan Zuoren, a former magazine editor, and charged him with subverting state power, according to international news reports. Tan had organized volunteers to collate an online database of children dead or missing since the disaster, the reports said. It is not clear where he is being held or where or when he will be tried.

“No journalists should be detained or hindered while reporting on victims or survivors of this terrible tragedy,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Allowing local and international journalists to report freely is an essential part of the recovery process for Sichuan.”

The Chinese government last week said for the first time that 5,335 of the tens of thousands of people killed were school students. National and provincial authorities see the students’ relatives as a potential security threat as they ask why schools built with public funds collapsed while nearby buildings withstood the shock, say local and international journalists. Investigations have the potential to expose corruption by Sichuan officials holding high-level posts in the region or in central government. The government has denied that wrongdoing played a part in the destruction of schools, according to international news reports.

After a brief period in which the government appeared to relax its normally tight restrictions, officials prevented foreign journalists from covering protests by the relatives in June 2008. Beijing announced in October 2008 that China would extend the relaxation of rules that allowed foreign journalists to conduct interviews freely; in January 2007 the government eased the rules as part of China’s pledge to allow reporters unrestricted coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Chinese journalist Qian Gang describes on Hong Kong University’s China Media Project Web site how propaganda officials have banned articles on the subject from the local media. But bloggers and citizen journalists have continued to cover the topic and produce independent lists and memorials of dead and missing children, Qian writes. Beijing-based artist and blogger Ai Weiwei said 20 of his helpers had been detained by police, according to The Associated Press. Chinese documentary filmmaker Liu Chang has produced a multimedia project memorializing the children, according to The New Yorker.