Earthquake Opens Gap in Controls on Media

Copyright The New York Times
Published: May 18, 2008
SHANGHAI — Two and a half hours after a huge earthquake struck Sichuan Province on Monday, an order went out from the powerful Central Propaganda Department to newspapers throughout China. “No media is allowed to send reporters to the disaster zone,” it read, according to Chinese journalists who are familiar with it.
When the order arrived, many reporters were already waiting at a Shanghai airport for a flight to Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu. A few were immediately recalled by their editors, but two reporters from the Shanghai newspaper The Oriental Morning Post, Yu Song and Wang Juliang, boarded a plane anyway. Soon, they were reporting from the heart of the disaster zone.
Their article filled an entire page of the next day’s Post, one of the first unofficial accounts of the tragedy by Chinese journalists. It included a graphic description of the scene and pictures of a mourning mother, a rescued child and corpses wrapped in white bunting. The paper further risked offending censors by printing an all-black front page that day, stressing the scale of the catastrophe.
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By Wednesday, so many reporters had ignored the government’s instructions that the Propaganda Department rescinded its original order, replacing it with another, more realistic one, reflecting its temporary loss of control.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.
One reporter from The Oriental Morning Post, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because the workings of the propaganda system are often treated as state secrets, described the widespread defiance as “stepping beyond the boundaries collectively.”
He described with pride the proliferation of articles that had suddenly appeared, adding, “clearly they were not just from Xinhua,” China’s official news agency, which under propaganda rules generally has a monopoly on firsthand reporting of major breaking news events.
Another Shanghai reporter, who arrived early on the scene and also spoke on condition of anonymity, described his trepidation at having violated the censors’ orders. He initially asked his editors to keep his byline off his dispatch. “I was afraid they would track me down,” he said. “But then I found it was fine, not just me, a lot of reporters were actually doing the same thing. Everybody was free to move and free to write whatever they could.”
China’s censors operate in secret. Their orders are issued verbally to senior editors at thousands of newspapers, Web sites and television outlets so that there is no written record of their mandates, editors say. The Propaganda Department does not have a public address or phone number and does not answer queries about its operations.
A handful of publications consistently skirt the edges of censorship on delicate topics, like land disputes, environmental problems and corruption. But editors who regularly defy the letter or the spirit of propaganda guidance are punished, replaced or sometimes prosecuted.
Coverage of major accidents, epidemic diseases and natural disasters has long been a source of contention. Editors and some officials have argued publicly that overly restrictive propaganda controls can result in deaths if people remain uninformed about risks.
Even so, efforts have been made in recent years to restrict the leeway the news media have to report on major events viewed as having the potential to “disrupt social order,” reporters and editors say.
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