Thursday, June 30, 2005Previous stories can be found here, here, here, and here.
BEHIND THE NEWS
State media blackout fails to stop news breaking
Despite attempts by the authorities to muzzle mainland
reporters and keep the horrific story of the Shulan
flood secret, details of the disaster are leaking out
via the internet, and by word of mouth, fuelling a
massive public outcry that has quickly put public
officials on the defensive.
Since the accident on June 10, officials in
Heilongjiang province, aided by a ban imposed by the
notorious state publicity department, have been
working to strictly silence reporters covering
controversial aspects of the disaster.
Drawing on the lessons of poor media management in
disasters elsewhere, officials in Ningan vowed to
facilitate press coverage, even to the extent of
assigning an official to "accompany" each out-of-town
reporter, in order to assist the newcomers. But
pledges of openness were not matched by actions. For
instance, officials refused to release the list of
victims who died in the flash flood, despite a
challenge by villagers that the official death toll
Bereaved villagers were also adamant that the
state-controlled media had - on the order of
propaganda authorities - deliberately omitted some
important aspects of the disaster in their coverage,
including a protest when hundreds blocked the way to
Ningan on June 12 to demand an investigation into why
officials ignored villagers' calls for help and were
slow to mount a rescue. Also unreported was a four-day
vigil at Ningan's funeral parlour and scenes of heavy
security there, where hundreds of armed soldiers and
police lined up against stunned villagers.
But the news blackout by state media has not stopped
attempts to get the truth out to the country's
internet users. Reports by two journalists on the
Southern Weekend, a respected Guangzhou-based
newspaper, were widely copied and circulated on the
internet. The reports were also read out on a
prime-time programme by the Hong Kong-based Phoenix
TV, popular on the mainland. Thousands of personal
blogs also were posted on the internet.
In Shalan, the news blackout and extremely biased and
sketchy reports in papers ironically worked as a
catalyst to bring the enraged villagers together to
appeal for their rights. "I was so disappointed with
those television reporters," said Sun Shoushuang,
whose sixth-grade son drowned before his eyes. "I saw
bodies everywhere. But those reporters cared little
about the devastated parents who carried their drowned
children on their backs and struggled their way out.
Their cameras only focused on the leaders who
inspected the scene. How sad and unfair it was to see
those cadres being presented as heroes on state and
local television, while the villagers' suffering was
"Did those officials actually save any children?" the
weeping 34-year-old father asked.
Tang Jiawei, the director of Mudanjiang city's
publicity department, said the government had to
impose a news blackout to avoid "trouble".
"It doesn't mean we don't welcome reporters. You can
still go to the daily press briefing to get
information," she said. "We simply don't want to see
trouble, which we've had with some Shanghai reporters
whose interviews with emotional villagers without our
guidance have caused great trouble with our work in
the last few days."
Thanks again to Martyn for helping to spread the news.