China’s Latest Media Censorship Target is a Disaster (Literally!)

by on June 27, 2006 · 6 comments

Those wacky Chinese officials are at it again. Apparently they’ve grown tired of just pestering those curious critters who type “Tiananmen Square” or “Falun Gong” into their search engines. So, they’re upping the ante and going after anyone who reports on natural disasters, industrial accidents, or health and security hazards without prior state permission.

Yes, you read that right: Reporting the news will soon be a crime in China. According to this report in today’s Wall Street Journal, a new bill being considered in China’s Parliament would “make reports on the handling of and status of public emergencies without approval” or “issue false reports” punishable by fines of between $6,000 and $12,000.

Think about how outrageous this is for a moment. The very act of reporting and the profession of journalism are fundamentally tied up with the idea of discussing trouble. Trouble with the schools, with roads, with politics, with sports teams, and so on. And, perhaps the most important type of reporting about trouble deals with disasters.

I was reminded of this again this week because here in the Washington, DC area we are experiencing torrential rain and flooding of the sort that forced Noah to build an ark. (Indeed, I had a trip to New York cancelled yesterday because Amtrak rails were underwater. And when I tried to get to the airport to take a plane up to NYC instead, I my car almost got stuck in a lake that suddenly formed in the middle of the highway on the way to D.C. National Airport.). The reporting that local papers and TV and radio stations have been doing during this natural disaster has proven indispensable. I’ve been monitoring stations to get updates on road closings and emerging problems, as well as constant weather updates. And I’ve been planning my routes around town using the Washington Post’s handy road closings map.

My point is that this is what journalism & reporting is all about: Providing basic information to the public to allow them to make important decisions. But apparently the Chinese don’t like the sound of that. They want control over such things in order to avoid a repeat of the reporting about the bird flu outbreak, during which certain Chinese newspapers had the audacity to actually tell the public that there was a looming health disaster in the country they might want to pay attention to! And Chinese officials don’t like those pesky reporters talking about the country’s HIV / AIDS crisis either. Apparently they feel that keeping the citizenry in the dark about such matters is a sensible way to deal with a major national health crisis. What insanity.

One cringes at the thought of how the media might respond to the newly proposed Chinese law. If a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl scenario breaks, what sort of chilling effect might the new law have on journalists who want to get the word out to the masses in a timely fashion? On a different level, say I’m just and average Chinese citizen who is lucky enough to have a computer, a digital camera and an e-mail account and I snap a few photos of a crack in nearby dam that appears to now be leaking. Will I get a knock on the door from state officials after posting those photos on the Web?

As my PFF colleague Patrick Ross–a former award-winning journalist himself–notes, China is basically undertaking Perestroika without Glasnost. They like the economic freedom part, but they think the whole free speech thing is for the birds. And, amazingly, it seems to be working. Contrary to what many (including me) have argued in the past, economic reform and social freedom does not necessarily go hand-in-hand. China is proving you can have one without the other.

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