Media memorializing Sichuan earthquake censored

New York, May 13, 2011–Amid a harsh media crackdown, Chinese authorities censored discussion of the May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake anniversary that referenced independent investigations into the damage, according to international news reports. CPJ interviewed filmmaker Alison Klayman about activists imprisoned for documenting official negligence which contributed to the destruction, including detained artist Ai Weiwei, to mark the anniversary. 

A Southern Metropolis Daily editorial remembering the victims quickly vanished from the Chinese Internet on Thursday, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project and international news reports. The editorial promised to “offer up porcelain sunflower seeds” in memory, a reference to the missing artist’s sunflower seed installation on display in the Tate Modern gallery in London, according to a translation by the Media Project. Ai disappeared into police custody, without the legally required confirmation of his detention, on April 3. Chinese authorities have said he is being investigated for economic crimes, but have so far failed to charge him. Two journalists who covered his activism have also disappeared.  

Academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, a supporter of Ai Weiwei, has reported anonymous harassment this month, according to an interview with Radio Free Asia and her personal Twitter account. Her front door was sealed shut from the outside with superglue and she has received more than a hundred silent phone calls, she told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday. Ai Xiaoming has been interviewed by several foreign journalists about the earthquake this week, and appeared Thursday in an online video reading the blocked Southern Metropolis Daily editorial aloud. She recently released a film about AIDS in China, according to international news reports.

“The censorship of Ai Weiwei’s supporters on the third anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake is a reminder that the work he and his associates did to document that tragedy is probably why he is in jail,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The Chinese Communist Party’s silencing of journalists who would remember a national disaster is an injustice to those who lost their lives in 2008.”

The harassment and detentions came against a backdrop of harsh measures to suppress independent and critical voices in China which escalated after anonymous Internet users, inspired by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, posted calls for Chinese demonstrations urging political reform in February. Among dozens of activists and intellectuals interrogated and arrested since then, at least one Internet writer, Ran Yunfei, has been criminally charged with inciting subversion of state power, a charge frequently used to imprison government critics, according to CPJ research.

Although local media coverage of the earthquake was unusually aggressive, Chinese authorities also severely limited reporting on any issues which highlighted official neglect or corruption. Chengdu-based activist and online commentator Tan Zuoren was detained after independently investigating the deaths of children in poorly built school buildings until his detention in March 2009 and is serving a five-year prison sentence for inciting subversion of state power in online articles, according to CPJ research.