China tightens noose on earthquake coverage

China’s unprecedented openness following last month’s earthquake is proving short-lived, as soldiers begin to cut off sensitive areas and as local media face growing reporting restrictions.

In the days after the May 12 quake that devastated the southwestern province of Sichuan and killed nearly 70 000 people, China was lauded for its transparency, as local and foreign media, as well as thousands of volunteers, streamed into the area unhindered.

”At first they didn’t have the ability to control it, but now they are recovering their ability,” said Ran Yunfei, a magazine editor in Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu.

”The foreign media has been too optimistic about the government,” he said, referring to the praise for China’s Communist authorities that followed the earthquake.

In the past week, checkpoints have gone up on highways leading into Dujiangyan and Juyuan, two Sichuan towns where schools collapsed, killing hundreds of children and angering grieving parents, who say the schools were shoddily built.

On Sunday, hundreds of parents held a mourning ceremony for children who died at Dujiangyan’s Xinjian primary school, an event journalists also attended unimpeded.

But as parents from several schools began to lodge protests with the local government, police and paramilitary forces were by mid-week blocking access to the Xinjian school, and preventing journalists from taking photos and television footage.

Reporters from Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily, among the most aggressive newspapers in the country, were also recalled from the area earlier this week, a journalist with the newspaper group said.

Beijing has vowed unprecedented media freedom when it hosts the Olympic Games in August, but foreign reporters who stray far from the capital or cover politically sensitive topics continue to find their work hindered.

Chinese journalists who push the envelope run far greater risks, from being fired to imprisonment, in the Communist-ruled country where all mainstream media is state-controlled.

‘Focus on heroes’
Local journalists say China’s propaganda organs issued guidance on reporting from the disaster zone soon after the quake, but that it is only in the past week or so that the rules have begun to be implemented.

One source familiar with the regulations said reporters were told to focus on heroes, especially if they were from the government or party, and to stay away from the sensitive issue of school collapses.

”Parents are extremely angered and excitable. But [journalists] are not to report any of the parents’ demands,” said the source, adding nothing negative should be published.

Still, many newspapers have run whole pages of stories and photos of the flattened schools, questioning if any official corruption was involved in their construction.

But the climate is getting tougher.

In the town of Wufu, where the school was the only building to fall, a local official and police tried to stop a foreign reporter from speaking to parents.

Police said there was a new regulation requiring reporters to register with the township government, despite press credentials issued by the provincial foreign affairs office. They then tailed journalists out of town.

Parents in the small town of Xiang’e, where more than 400 died in the collapse of the middle school, said they had seen no local media reports about their situation.

”I haven’t seen anything about Xiang’e on television or in the newspapers,” said resident Li Fuliang, whose 14-year-old son Li Wei died in the school.

”Some local Sichuan reporters came here, but they weren’t allowed to publish it.” – Reuters 2008

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Lindsay Beck
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