[See below for updates from 5/7/09]
As the government finally announces an official death toll, saying that 5,335 school children were killed in the May 12, 2008 earthquake, several foreign journalists reporting from the earthquake zone have been harassed or detained as the quake’s one-year anniversary approaches. [Ai Weiwei, who is independently investigating the number of students killed, has given a preliminary estimate that is higher than the government’s.] Jamil Anderlini, a Financial Times correspondent who was attacked by local officials, reports:
In separate incidents on Tuesday a Finnish television crew and a Financial Times reporter were attacked near Fuxin number two primary school while trying to interview parents of the 126 children killed when the poorly constructed school collapsed.
In another incident on Wednesday a correspondent for the Irish Times was detained by police for almost an hour for trying to meet parents of hundreds of children who died in another school collapse in the town of Juyuan. He was released but told foreign reporters were forbidden from interviewing grieving parents during the “sensitive” period around the anniversary of the earthquake, which killed nearly 90,000 people.
Several other media organisations said their staff had been harassed and detained in the earthquake zone by police and government officials, in spite of recently introduced laws that supposedly allow foreign journalists to go anywhere in China and speak to any willing interview subject
“Private interviews are forbidden.” the police officer told me. “This is a sensitive time.” His words, uttered yesterday at a barracks in Juyuan, a town devastated by the earthquake in Sichuan province last year, made absolutely clear why I had just been detained by police for doing my job as a reporter. They also showed there is a total shutdown on media coverage of China’s “sensitive” areas, despite a much applauded initial openness in allowing foreign journalists to witness the aftermath of the quake. Since then, the voices of angry parents who lost their children in the wreckage have been silenced because public anger over shoddily-built schools is seen as politically destabilising.
We have received three separate, confirmed reports today of journalists being physically attacked in Sichuan. Nobody has been hurt but equipment has been broken. The details are below. Given the violence of the encounters and an apparent increasing frequency of reports, it seems the situation is becoming more volatile and we advise extra caution when visiting these areas.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the harassment of parents of children who died and of activists investigating the earthquake death toll.
Read all of CDT’s coverage of the Sichuan earthquake.
Updated 5/7/09: Chinese officials responded to the claims of harassment by foreign reporters in the quake zone by accusing the journalists of incitement. From the Financial Times:
Mr Hou denied that any reporters had been harassed or detained in recent weeks and said the government had not received any complaints, despite many accounts from foreign journalists of official interference in their work.
“A very small number of [foreign] media and journalists did not go to the earthquake zone to conduct interviews but to incite trouble and we have proof of this,” he said. “[They] didn’t go to interview the masses in the earthquake zone on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the earthquake zone but to ask [the people], ‘Why don’t you organise yourselves and fight the government?’ ”
He did not say which foreign media were involved and did not offer proof.
The Financial Times report includes a video report from Jamil Anderlini with up-close footage of his scuffle with local security officials as he tried to interview a mother who lost a child in the earthquake.
See also “Quake count: How China’s death toll of schoolchildren adds up” from the Christian Science Monitor.