Weibo puts the heat on officials over tragedy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am


Despite strong propaganda directives to the media and detailed instructions to downplay Saturday's high-speed train crash in Zhejiang province, a critical mass of internet users' questions and media coverage seems to have forced mainland authorities to supply more details about the accident.

Doubts over the death toll which officially stands at 39 were raised on Sina Weibo - the Chinese version of Twitter - which has become a driving force in providing accurate details on the accident that conflict with official accounts.

It has also been a popular platform to search for missing victims when no official channel was available for this purpose.

'The nature of Weibo's communication empowers the voice of internet users. It has pressured authorities to investigate further and answer questions raised by internet users,' said Song Shinan, a Chengdu -based media analyst at Southwest University for Nationalities.

'It's a victory for Weibo,' Song said. 'No one can afford to ignore Weibo now as it facilitates information flow and directly reflects public opinion.'

He said the authorities had to form an investigation team under pressure, abandoning their initial blame for the accident on 'equipment failure caused by a lightning strike'.

Internet users voluntarily collected names of the dead from the crash. They also urged the ministry to reveal the names of the dead, an increasingly sensitive and serious issue on the mainland after a contentious count for a Shanghai high-rise fire and the toll provided in a high-profile campaign by artist-activist Ai Weiwei for Sichuan earthquake victims.

The internet users posted pertinent questions about the official account of the cause of the railway accident, the death toll and the reason for burying the locomotive of the second train involved in the crash. Authorities say that they buried the locomotive to fill a hole in the ground and continue with rescue efforts.

Although central propaganda directives were issued demanding that the media carry reports by Xinhua and 'not to comment, elaborate or do reflective reports', newspapers still managed either to confront or get round these directives by working on other angles.

Observation Today, a commentary programme on CCTV Channel 2, cast serious doubt on rescue irregularities in the ministry's account. Life is priceless, the programme makers argued, and so should be 'properly respected'.

An antiquated system and planned economy mechanism of the Ministry of Railways was behind the rail accidents of recent years, the Qianjiang Evening News commented. The 21st Century Business Herald focused on a chain of monopoly interests behind the railway industry.

Other media carried stories about the compensation scheme for the crash, overseas rescue procedures and the operation of bullet trains in other countries, including Japan.

Professor Zhan Jiang, who teaches journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said control of the media had subsided under the challenges of a new media era. 'It's more transparent in society when grass-roots citizen journalists can get their messages across faster than traditional media,' Zhan said.

When Weibo provided new clues, combined pressure was formed through interaction between online and print media. Song said: 'The truth will be forced out by the combined power. Even if it's not complete truth, it's at least partial.'