Mainland propaganda authorities suddenly imposed a media ban on the Wenzhou train crash, forcing newspapers nationwide to scrap pages of coverage at the last minute.
The Publicity Department of the Communist Party issued the order to newspaper and internet editors at 9pm on Friday, just a day after Premier Wen Jiabao visited the scene of the disaster and pledged transparency and openness.
The statement read: 'After the serious rail traffic accident on July 23, overseas and domestic public opinions have become increasingly complicated. All local media, including newspapers, magazines and websites, must rapidly cool down the reports of the incident.
'[You] are not allowed to publish any reports or commentaries, except positive news or information released by the authorities.'
The order was issued just hours before editors were due to send pages of special sections to mark the seventh day of the disaster for printing.
The seventh day is the most important day of mourning for the dead, according to Chinese tradition.
The China Business Journal was forced to scrap eight pages, the 21st Century Business Herald 12 pages and the Beijing News nine pages.
Almost every mainland newspaper was also forced to remove the high-speed-rail accident from its front page at the last minute.
Even Xinhua had to warn its media subscribers not to use one of its investigative reports.
Angry journalists and editors posted the scrapped pages on Weibo, the mainland version of the social networking service Twitter, and complained they had to scramble quickly for other stories to fill the pages.
One reporter wrote: 'I was ordered to write something to fill up the empty pages at 10pm. At midnight I could no longer control myself and cried. I was driven by grief to the brink of suicide.'
The Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement yesterday urging the authorities to remove its media ban and to promise not to retaliate against journalists who reported on the incident.
'We call on Hong Kong journalists to ... continue to tell Hong Kong and foreign readers the truth, to prevent similar incidents from taking place on the high-speed railway linking to Hong Kong,' it said.
Over the past week, the state media has been ferocious in its quest for the truth about the crash, which killed at least 40 people and injured nearly 200 others, and has been highly critical of the railway authorities. Even Xinhua and China Central Television ran extensive and unusually blunt reports.
The Economic Observer, one of the few newspapers that dared to defy the order, won praise yesterday after it published nine pages of special reports.
Xinhua, on the other hand, ran a lengthy interview with railway officials who said rescuing survivors was their priority and who denied claims of a cover-up.
The media ban, imposed in an attempt to suppress the public's anger, is likely to backfire by causing further frustration.
A reporter with a major Guangdong newspaper said yesterday: 'We receive topic bans every day, but we haven't seen a ban so severe, so abrupt and so desperate.
'Dictators may be thinking they can get away with the storm of public anger by suppressing the media. But this time they are wrong.'