Reporters Without Borders condemns the severe restrictions that the Propaganda Department has imposed on media coverage of the high-speed train crash on 23 July in the southeastern city of Wenzhou, in which 39 people were killed.
Wang Qinglei, a producer with state-owned China Central Television (中國中央電視台), was fired on 27 July because of his investigative coverage of the crash. The previous day, his News 1+1 programme was suspended without advance warning and without explanation after it criticized a transport ministry spokesman.
On 30 July, a week after the crash, the Propaganda Department issued a directive banning any “report or commentary about the company responsible for the signal system of the high speed railway and local metro railway system.” The day before, it said “all media including sister newspapers, magazines and websites should immediately play down the [crash story] except to report information from the relevant authorities and positively report the aftermath.”
“We are appalled by these directives,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The public has a right to be informed about the circumstances of this rail disaster. Without independent journalists investigating and putting out information, there is every chance that those responsible will never be identified.
“Without the press acting as a watchdog, the ‘rapid and transparent’ probes promised by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are rare. The media often have a galvanizing effect on the police and judicial system in investigations. The imposition of restrictions is often a sign that a case is going to be hushed up or dealt with summarily.”
Reporters Without Borders is also outraged by the additional eight-year jail sentence that has just be imposed on Qi Chonghuai, a journalist detained since June 2007 because of his investigative coverage of corruption. He was given the additional sentence on the same charges just as his original four-year sentence was about to expire and it was confirmed on appeal on 1 August.
While dismissals, disappearances and arbitrary arrests have long been part of the arsenal used by the authorities to suppress news and information, sentencing someone twice on the same charge is an extremely disturbing judicial innovation.
The Chinese government has been displaying a great deal of nervousness about human right activists, independent journalists and bloggers even since the start of the Arab Spring, which it clearly regards as a virus that could be catching.
According to the Reporters Without Borders tally, a total of 11 journalists have been fired, 13 have been arrested and two had disappeared since January, while 30 journalists are currently detained.