Earthquake Opens Gap in Controls on Media (UPDATED)

In the New York Times, Howard French reports that just after the earthquake struck, the Propaganda Department issued a directive that no reporters were allowed to travel to the disaster zone. But after reporters defied the ban and published graphic descriptions of the devastation, the order was rescinded:

The earthquake has tested this country in many ways, including a death toll that has steadily climbed into the tens of thousands and the logistical nightmare of reaching isolated hamlets in a mountainous region with narrow, treacherous roads.

One of the biggest challenges, though, is to the country’s sometimes sophisticated, sometimes heavy-handed propaganda system. China’s censors found themselves uncharacteristically hamstrung when they tried to micromanage news coverage of the earthquake, as they do most major news stories in China.

By Wednesday, so many reporters had ignored the government’s instructions that the Propaganda Department rescinded its original order, replacing it with another, more realistic one, reflecting its temporary loss of control. “Reporters going to the disaster zone must move about with rescue teams,” it said, giving tacit, retroactive approval to freer coverage.

Shen Rui (沈睿), a Beijing born, US-based academic who also publishes commentaries in the Chinese media, writes on her blog:

The [Chinese] newspaper editor wrote to me this noon and still wants me to write commentaries about the quake. But with three conditions: First, do not explore the reasons behind the consequences of such a disaster, including whether school buildings were built below standard…. Second, do not comment on the collection and distribution of donations and aid; third, do not criticize corruption and incompetence of officials in the disaster zone.

I read this demand and sighed.

Dancing in shackles.

This is China, the China I love and miss.

May 18, 2008 9:41 PM
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Categories: Politics, Society