In China, reporter’s death sparks questions on censorship

Twenty-four-year-old Bai Lu was just four days into her new job as a journalist at the Urumqi Evening Post when she was killed. She and her colleague, Chen Aiying, were struck by a bulldozer while reporting at a major construction project on April 18 in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province. Chen was seriously injured.

While Bai’s death was widely reported in the Chinese press and social media, critical questions have been raised around the details of her death–some of which indicate that important information is still censored even when a story is widely publicized.

The construction site where Bai was killed was reportedly part of an infrastructure project in Urumqi that was designed to ease traffic congestion in the city, according to the Hong Kong University-based China Media Project. The report cited an unnamed source who said that local government officials had violated procedures on the construction project. The report did not offer further details.

On the day of the accident, the Urumqi Evening Post posted information on its Weibo account that included the name of the construction site and the term “tractor shovel.” The post was subsequently deleted and replaced with one in which both references were removed. Weibo users began to raise critical questions, some speculating that the reference to the construction site must have been omitted because it left politicians connected to the construction project vulnerable. Other details, they said, could have been removed to avoid Bai’s death being conflated with a case of forced demolition. Authorities have, at times, engaged in forced demolitions across China, in which villagers are crushed by machines while trying to defend their homes.

The following day, Urumqi Evening Post‘s front page featured the story of Bai’s death with a photograph of the candlelight vigil held in her memory. The paper’s coverage, along with that of other local media, focused on the grief surrounding her death. According to the China Media Project‘s analysis of the accident, the coverage turned attention away from the critical reporting of the construction project itself. In addition, the headline to the Urumqi Evening Post story read, “Bailu: Youth Cut Short On The Way To An Interview,” suggesting she was killed on the way to report a story instead of at the scene of the story.

Following Bai’s death, one journalist at Urumqi Evening Post wrote on Weibo:

“If one day something happens to me in the course of reporting a story, the rest of you won’t know where exactly it happened, and how it happened, because you wouldn’t be allowed to know. But there would be people calling on all of you to follow my example, to contribute to the cause of journalism. This is our sorrow. I love doing journalism, but I am filled with sorrow.”