New attempts to rein in train crash coverage in China

New York, August 1, 2011–Chinese propaganda authorities renewed their orders to media groups late Friday not to report on last week’s train crash or its aftermath after their initial bans on coverage were widely disregarded, according to international news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists said today that popular outcry in China at the crash is a sign that propaganda orders cannot suppress public opinion.

CPJ said last week that China should allow unrestricted reporting on the crash, which took place near the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province on July 25. News outlets reporting on the tragic event quickly received official instructions to emphasize successful rescues and downplay critical analysis. But many responded instead to the popular demand for answers in online forums and published in-depth reports on the crash until Friday’s reiterated ban, which is when many of the earlier articles disappeared from the Internet, international news reports said.

A few newspapers continued to look for ways around the latest directive. The Beijing-based Economic Observer disregarded Friday’s order by issuing an eight-page special report and a commentary addressing a 2-year-old child rescued from the wreckage that derided the “hypocrisy, arrogance, rashness and cruelty” behind the disaster, according to a translation published on The Wall Street Journal Web site. The commentary was later removed from the Chinese website.

Other news outlets used a different tack: alluding to forbidden, sensitive issues by publishing images or headlines on other topics that nevertheless evoke the censored issue–like the publication of a tank cartoon on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The Beijing Newsfront page alleged that the Palace Museum tried to cover up the breaking of a valuable pottery piece into six pieces–the number of cars that went off the rails in the crash.

“The Chinese people asked for full, unfettered reporting on the train crash, and the media responded with resilience and creativity,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The propaganda authorities are not only obstructing a fair account of what happened in the crash, but they are also generating tremendous resentment and mistrust among journalists and readers.”

At least 39 people were killed in the crash, which was caused by two trains colliding due to a weather-related signal malfunction, according to local and international news reports. Railway ministry boasts about the newly introduced service, followed by contradictory explanations for the crash and apparent attempts to bury the damaged train instead of examine it, fueled public resentment in the mainstream media and online.  

Many commentators pointed to the rise of local microblogs as a means for Internet users to express their anger fast enough to outpace censors. “Reporters, experts, academics, celebrities, youngsters, businessmen and even low-ranking officials have expressed their outrage on microblogs and web forums,” journalist and media commentator Chang Ping wrote in the South China Morning Post. “Even some [China Central Television] hosts have also used their microblogs to ask questions of the authorities and demand accountability,” he said.

A CPJ 2010 special report, “In China, a debate on press rights,” found that mainstream journalists frequently used their own microblogs, and collaboration with online commentators, to sidestep media limits.