Mainland analysts yesterday lamented the authorities' ban on media coverage of the Wenzhou train crash, saying the move would fuel public distrust of the government and further undermine its credibility.
They also praised a number of media outlets which continued to press for truth and demand justice, showing an unprecedented defiance despite Friday night's ban issued by propaganda authorities.
Analysts noted the ban was targeted at internet portals and mass circulation newspapers in major cities, especially outspoken ones which often raised tough questions when scrutinising the government.
News portals such as sina.com and sohu.com have replaced their special coverage of the crash with reports by the official Xinhua news agency and most mainland newspapers have scaled back their coverage significantly.
While Shanghai-based Dongfang Daily and Beijing News, which won praise for its lengthy reports in the past week, ran one or two reports focusing on rail authorities' revised compensation offer, many other tabloid newspapers, such as Beijing Times and Beijing Evening News, dropped any mention of the disaster.
But Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the most respected newspapers, continued its coverage of the disaster with a two-page report yesterday, including an eyewitness account of the disaster.
Weekly magazines published over the weekend, such as Caixin Century, Nanfang People Weekly, China Business News Weekly and Southern Metropolis Weekly, appeared to have not been affected by the ban, with cover stories discussing the causes of the crash and grilling the rail ministry on its role in the deadliest collision since 2008.
An opinion piece published by Economic Observer said the media had to act as the conscience of society at a critical juncture in the country's development. 'We are all passengers of this bullet train rushing to modernise and for the sake of our own happiness and well-being, we should do our jobs properly,' it said.
Professor Zhan Jiang, who teaches journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the ban was apparently another act of the government's obsession with stability.
'Despite public calls and Premier Wen Jiabao's appeal for truth and greater transparency, propaganda authorities still issued gags due to their decades-long habit of muzzling the media,' he said.
A mainland media critic, who declined to be named for fear of persecution, said the media's rare defiance laid bare the conflict between propaganda authorities and mass media.
'Although there has been growing competition among various media outlets, this sort of media crackdown has forced them to unite on the basis of basic journalistic values and form an alliance against tightened control.
'Censorship can only undermine the government's credibility and consolidate the alliance between the people and the media,' he said.
Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor at Beijing's Renmin University, said the media ban was not surprising because the legitimacy of one-party rule was at stake. 'We are too familiar with all sorts of media crackdowns, with the same purpose of keeping the public in the dark.'
In an interview with China Central Television, deputy railways minister Lu Dongfu denied the allegation of cover-ups and defended his ministry's handling of the crash.
Lu said public doubts about rail authorities' role in the rescue operation 'have deeply hurt the feelings' of all those involved in the rescue effort, including over 2,000 railway staff. 'No one from the railway ministry leading the rescue operation has ever said anything like stopping the search for survivors.'