Media freedom the best guarantor of public safety

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2009, 12:00am

The stream of preventable accidents on the mainland has many causes, but the government's tight control of the media is a major factor. If journalists are allowed to do their jobs properly, threats and dangers will be revealed more readily. Timely alerts could be given, regularly updated information issued and prompt efforts made to ensure safety. An incident in a heavily populated area in Guangzhou involving the dangerous radioactive substance cobalt-60, which can cause cancers, chillingly demonstrates the flaws of the policy.

Guangdong province has the mainland's freest and most aggressive media, but the case plainly demonstrates the limits. People living near the Guangzhou Research and Development Centre for Irradiation Technology had no inkling of how serious the accident could have been until a report by the liberal Southern Metropolis News - 48 days after scientists began battling a radiation leak. Authorities took two days to reveal what they called a technical glitch and in subsequent weeks released only scant information. When the potential danger became known, panic naturally ensued.

The government says the danger has passed and that the risk of radiation poisoning was never high. This assessment would be easier to accept if residents had been better informed. Indeed, they would have remained oblivious to the scale of the incident for longer - and may never have known - were it not for the relative freedoms the newspaper enjoys. Trust in officialdom, many of whose members the media have exposed as corrupt and inept, has fallen again.

Free and open media help keep a government honest and transparent by watching over it and, where necessary, challenging leaders and officials. Journalists working in such an environment educate and inform society and guarantee freedoms. This helps minimise waste and corruption and improve public safety. Controls on the media are not in China's interests; worse, as the radiation accident proves, they can be dangerous. Until the media are given free rein, people will remain at risk, poorly served by government and mistrustful of officials.