Free and fair reporting is just what Xinjiang needs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong's politicians are usually divided on issues involving the mainland. History and politics more often than not determine attitudes, splitting them into two opposing camps. But there is no such disagreement about the manner in which authorities in Xinjiang have justified the rough handling by police of three journalists covering unrest in the region. Politicians of all stripes have rightly joined forces to demand that the media be allowed to do its job.

A united call went out yesterday for an investigation into the beating, tying up and detention by police last week of a TVB reporter and cameraman and a Now TV cameraman. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has expressed concern, local delegates to the National People's Congress have criticised the Xinjiang authorities and the central government's liaison office has reacted sympathetically to complaints. A rare protest march organised by journalists could be in the offing.

Xinjiang officials clearly do not understand the importance of the media's role, as remarks made by one at a press conference in Urumqi on Tuesday demonstrate. Information office director Hou Hanmin accused the three journalists of working without permits and stirring unrest. She expressed regret at the manner in which they had been treated, but said they had broken local regulations. The television stations deny that the journalists disregarded any rules. All had the right documents and were interviewing and filming when the police intervened, the stations contend. An independent investigation would, hopefully, establish the truth. But if the experience of journalists covering the unrest is any guide, authorities and police in Xinjiang do not welcome outside media.

Such an attitude is troubling given the circumstances in the region. Tensions are running high between the Uygur ethnic minority there and Han Chinese. Nearly 200 people were killed in ethnic violence in July and another five in protests in the past week sparked by reports about people attacking others with hypodermic needles. Rumours about such attacks have fuelled the air of fear in the city. Beijing claims separatist forces are responsible for them.

Verifying these allegations has proven difficult. Authorities have been less than co-operative with the media. The beating of the three Hong Kong journalists and the brief detention of five others has caused disquiet. Reporters are worried; they fear that if they try to do their work, police will subject them to the same treatment.

A clash of cultures is taking place. The mainland's state-run media is tightly controlled. It works within well-defined parameters. What officials say is rarely questioned. Hong Kong's media is vibrant and free. Its journalists investigate; they are sceptical of officialdom. When they have a notebook in hand, a crowd gathers around and questions are asked. They are not causing trouble, as mainland authorities appear to believe; they are seeking out the truth.

A lack of information is helping the spread of rumours, fear and hatred in Xinjiang. Officials have responded by pouring police and troops onto the streets. This, plus the sacking of officials and the arrest and trial of alleged perpetrators of violence cannot resolve the underlying tensions. A change in government policies is needed. Ensuring the protection of journalists' freedoms and rights must be a priority. A free and fair media can help provide information, transparency, openness and accountability and establish the truth - factors sorely lacking in Xinjiang and elsewhere on the mainland.