Muzzling the media: same old story

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am

Every year, the Chinese media endures a dry spell for the National People's Congress annual discussions. From February, news suddenly becomes bland and sources, who normally talk quite freely, clam up - all in the interest of fostering a harmonious atmosphere.

The initial Sars cover-up occurred precisely during this 'sensitive time' last year. The crisis was supposed to have taught the central government a few painful lessons about openness and transparency, but the contrition appears to have been short-lived.

Last week's stampede at the lantern festival in Miyun county, Beijing, which killed 37, showed just how little has changed. Local news outlets promptly received notice to use only Xinhua reports. Journalists were barred from approaching relatives of the victims, some of whom were eager to tell their side of the story.

A colleague of mine, thanks to her youthful college-student looks, slipped into the Miyun county hospital and got her scoop. When she tried to get in again, though, officials stopped her. A crowd soon gathered, with angry family members of the victims coming to her aid, insisting that their complaints were heard and reported.

Of course, officials went through the motions, setting up a singularly unhelpful news centre. Official reports focused on the efficiency of the rescue efforts and how top city officials had visited the scene.

Acting mayor Wang Qishan, who replaced Meng Xuenong, sacked during the Sars crisis, was once thought to symbolise the no-nonsense official, worthy of restoring a shattered public confidence. But he did not seem to be bothered by the fact that the press was muzzled.

One city editor told me that he had no interest in letting reporters run amok at such a sensitive time, especially as the accident was only of passing interest to the international media. 'The propaganda officials are scared that any reports straying from the routine might kindle discontent,' he said. 'And there is plenty of discontent around.'

The cautious approach, or paranoia, began a month ago with the removal of internet postings from major portals on the so-called 'BMW Incident'. Heated online discussions began concerning the power of money and the opacity of the judicial system following a wealthy woman driver's lenient sentence after her white BMW ploughed through a crowded street in Harbin, killing one peasant woman and injuring 12 onlookers. Responding to public pressure, officials promised to

re-examine the case before the spring festival, but no action followed.

Legal scholars and political scientists justified the gagging of public discussions by saying that the rising power of the media and the public must not be allowed to interfere in the legal process, in order to protect judicial independence.

If the process was transparent, the public would have few doubts that justice had been served. A CCTV crew investigated the BMW case for its news magazine Focus, but the report was not aired. A reporter following the story said that the media was told to back off because too much digging could damage the authority of the legal system.

The authorities are counting on the public's short attention span. Putting a lid on the raging debate may cause some grumbling, but people soon move on to another topic. However, doubts about the reluctance of officials to assume responsibility in Miyun and the issue of justice in the BMW case are festering wounds. Choking public discussion only defers the inevitable flare-up.

Nailene Chou Wiest is a Post correspondent based in Beijing