Chinese Media Take Firm Stand On Openness About Earthquake

This young boy was shown on national TV Wednesday. Nonstop coverage has inspired the public to donate blood, money and labor to the rescue effort.
This young boy was shown on national TV Wednesday. Nonstop coverage has inspired the public to donate blood, money and labor to the rescue effort. (Photo: CCTV Via Associated Press)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008

BEIJING -- "Are we going to continue to cover the earthquake?" the Guangzhou-based reporter asked in an instant message to his editor, a day after China's deadliest earthquake in three decades struck Sichuan province.

"Of course," replied the editor, surnamed Yang. "Why not?"

Then, the reporter said, he forwarded to his boss the text of the latest edict from the propaganda department of the Communist Party Central Committee, ordering domestic news media not to send any more journalists to Sichuan.

Yang wrote back, "If everyone pays no attention to this, then it won't really be a ban."

The questioning of the party directive was largely consistent with how China's normally timid news media have reacted to Monday's massive earthquake. Journalists have covered the disaster with unprecedented openness and intensity, broadcasting nearly nonstop live television footage, quickly updating death tolls on the Internet and printing bold newspaper editorials calling for building industry and other reforms.

In 1976, after an earthquake razed Tangshan in the northeastern province of Hebei, the death toll of 240,000 was treated as a state secret for years. When snowstorms crippled southern China during this year's Spring Festival, much local news coverage was late and lacking in detail.

This week's expansive coverage of the disaster, however, has mobilized a tearful public to donate blood, money and labor, while also giving the nation a good look at the scope of the problem, from scores of collapsed schools to a desperate need for doctors. The coverage has also encouraged citizens to raise questions about the rescue effort, worrying government officials who prefer to control the narrative themselves.

"We know the directives from the propaganda department exist, but if the leadership finds that greater openness serves their interests, maybe they'll reconsider how they handle these things generally," said David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "If we talk about the media being on a leash, it's still true, but the leash has been lengthened."

China's media are entirely state-controlled, but since the economic reforms of the 1990s, the commercialization of the industry has meant racier content and more aggressive headlines as news organizations compete for readers, viewers and advertising dollars. Skyrocketing use of the Internet has also eroded the efficiency of national censors.

On Monday, after the quake struck at 2:28 p.m., the news page of the popular Web site reported within minutes that office buildings were shaking in Hunan province. At 2:46 p.m., the Web site of the official New China News Agency reported that tremors had been felt in the suburbs of Beijing, 10 minutes after vibrations from the quake were registered in the capital. By 2:53 p.m., less than half an hour after the quake rocked Sichuan province, an online New China News Agency report had named Wenchuan county as the epicenter.

Shortly after that, CCTV began to broadcast live. Web sites immediately devoted special sections to the story. The public traded information online, through instant messaging, bulletin boards and blogs.

"The transparency of information can unite everybody to fight against the big tragedy," said Min Dahong, a journalism professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "This is a good opportunity to establish a system that will encourage the press to report in a timely and open manner. I think the government learned a lesson from the snowstorm coverage."

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