China tries to rein in reports on disasters
A proposed law could fine local news media up to $12,500 for reporting without permission.
China is considering a new Emergency Response Law that would give local governments the right to "manage news media reports" about emergencies. The law would fine news outlets up to $12,500 for reporting on those events without permission or in a way that "causes serious consequences."Skip to next paragraph
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The proposed changes, first floated in late June, follow a string of reports about disasters – particularly coal mining accidents – that has embarrassed officials, and in some cases led to legal action.
China's justice system dropped a rare hammer in June on 18 men, including a high-ranking government official, accused in a bribery scheme exposed by a local newspaper that may have led to the deaths of 121 coal miners. Last August, the China Business Times issued a stunning investigative report following the deadly mine flood in Guangdong Province that implicated the owner in a multimillion dollar bribery scheme to keep the facility open despite failed safety tests.
The proposed media legislation does not define what constitutes "serious consequences." Absent further definition, critics say, officials could conceivably use the legislation to smother reporting on any events that might reflect badly on them, or on China in general.
Draconian management of information is a time-honored tradition in China, where the pen has always garnered roughly the same respect as the sword. But China's leaders have rarely been so open about major media controls – and have never publicly considered writing them into its legal code.
"This is definitely new," says Wang Feng, a Beijing-based journalist.
Experts either don't know or aren't willing to say exactly why the government is considering the move. Journalists themselves offer one of the most compelling theories: The law, many say, is a desperate move from a government nervous that current measures aren't enough to contain the country's increasingly independent and sophisticated newspapers.
Economic development has pulled most of the country's journalists away from financial dependence on the Communist Party. Driven at least in part by commercial pressure, reporters say, newspapers have become adept at reading political winds and skirting restrictions to get big stories.
Some of the best newspapers, for example, have become fast enough to exploit a lag time between the occurrence of a news event and the government orders to suppress it.
"It makes sense [the government] would do this," says one reporter from the Economic Observer, a commercial newspaper, elaborating with a line of classical poetry Mao once used as a rallying cry for his revolutionaries: "The tiniest flame can set the prairie ablaze."
There were 3,341 mine accidents and some 87,000 demonstrations in China last year, according to the government. Censors managed to keep most incidents quiet, but newspapers have squeezed through the occasional showstopper.
Last year, Chinese newspapers blasted officials in Jilin Province for refusing to talk about a factory explosion that dumped 100 tons of toxic chemicals into the Songhua River. Domestic media also broke one the biggest scandals in recent Chinese history: efforts by Beijing city officials to downplay the extent of the SARS crisis in 2003.