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."

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.

"Now we can get the story, one way or another," says journalist Li Liang. After a gas explosion killed 166 miners in a state-run coal mine in Chenjiashan two years ago, hewas blocked for three days from reporting the story by officials who kept media from the site and locked them out of the hospital. Such obstacles are no longer as effective, he says.

China has been embroiled in a media crackdown in recent years in which dozens of websites have been shut, respected journalists banned from publishing, and a pair of journalists jailed – all under the rubric of president Hu Jintao's drive to "build a harmonious society."

Zhao Yan, a researcher for The New York Times arrested in 2004, stood trial last month in Beijing on charges of revealing state secrets, but he remains in jail without a verdict. Another journalist, Hong Kong citizen Ching Cheong, stood trial in Beijing last week on spying charges.

"Except for the immediate aftermath of the June 4 [Tiananmen Square] crackdown, this current government has been much more repressive in the detention and jailing of journalists, cyber-dissidents, and dissidents," says Merle Goldman, a Chinese media expert at Harvard University.

Journalists nevertheless unleashed a surprisingly bold storm of public criticism after the current draft of the Emergency Response Law was submitted to the National People's Congress for the first of three reviews in late June.

Editor Zhang Ping penned the strongest condemnation in a June editorial for Southern Metropolitan Daily: "Local government and those engaged in cover-ups should fine the media?" he wrote. "Is this or is this not absurd?"

The Emergency Response Law was reportedly conceived in the wake of the SARS scandal and is, the government says, primarily aimed at increasing transparency in government handling of emergencies. The current draft demands local governments provide information about emergencies "in a timely manner" and threatens negligent officials with removal. In a rare response to the criticism, a top official from the State Council insisted in a July 3 press conference that the fines would not affect "normal" reporting on emergencies.

Although they refuse to name names, some media scholars hypothesize the law was a genuine drive for transparency hijacked by party hard- liners in the propaganda department.

Li Kun, a professor of journalism at Beijing University, and most other observers consider it all but certain the restrictions will stay in some form, as Beijing rarely backtracks on draft laws once they've been made public. Opinion is more divided over what effect the law will have once it goes into effect, which could happen anywhere from a month to a year from now.

Most editors and reporters expect the threat of fines to scare publications into self-censorship, at least until they have time to figure out the new system. "It's like ping-pong," says the Economic Observer reporter. "It's always like this. We'll just find new ways to get things done."

Li Datong, outspoken former editor of the weekly Freezing Point who was banished to the research room in March after a conflict with propaganda officials, puts it in slightly grander terms.

"Chinese news media have matured immensely," he says. "This kind of progress, this kind of effort, it's impossible to contain."

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