State media blackout fails to stop news breaking

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 12:00am

Despite attempts by the authorities to muzzle mainland reporters, details of the Shalan flood disaster are leaking out via the internet, and by word of mouth, fuelling a public outcry that has put officials on the defensive.

Since the accident on June 10, officials in Heilongjiang province, aided by a ban imposed by the notorious state publicity department, have been working to silence reporters covering controversial aspects of the disaster.

Drawing on the lessons of poor media management in disasters elsewhere, officials in Ningan vowed to facilitate press coverage, even to the extent of assigning an official to 'accompany' each out-of-town reporter, in order to assist the newcomers. But pledges of openness were not always matched by actions. For instance, officials refused to release the list of victims who died in the flash flood, despite a challenge by villagers that the official death toll was incorrect.

Bereaved villagers were also adamant that the state-controlled media had - on the order of propaganda authorities - deliberately omitted some important aspects of the disaster in their coverage, including a protest when hundreds blocked the way to Ningan on June 12 to demand an investigation into why officials ignored villagers' calls for help and were slow to mount a rescue. Also unreported was a four-day vigil at Ningan's funeral parlour and scenes of heavy security there, where hundreds of armed soldiers and police lined up against stunned villagers.

But the news blackout by state media has not stopped attempts to get the truth out to the country's internet users. Reports by two journalists on the Southern Weekend, a respected Guangzhou-based newspaper, were widely copied and circulated on the internet. The reports were also read out on a prime-time programme by the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, popular on the mainland. Thousands of personal blogs also were posted on the internet.

In Shalan, the news blackout and biased reports in papers ironically worked as a catalyst to bring the enraged villagers together to appeal for their rights. 'I was so disappointed with those television reporters,' said Sun Shoushuang, whose sixth-grade son drowned before his eyes. 'I saw bodies everywhere. But those reporters cared little about the devastated parents who carried their drowned children on their backs and struggled their way out. Their cameras only focused on the leaders who inspected the scene. How sad and unfair it was to see those cadres being presented as heroes on state and local television, while the villagers' suffering was downplayed.

'Did those officials actually save any children?' the weeping 34-year-old father asked.

Tang Jiawei, the director of Mudanjiang city's publicity department, said the government had to impose a news blackout to avoid 'trouble'.

'It doesn't mean we don't welcome reporters. You can still go to the daily press briefing to get information,' she said. 'We simply don't want to see trouble, which we've had with some Shanghai reporters whose interviews with emotional villagers without our guidance have caused great trouble with our work in the last few days.'