Breaking news alerts on Urumqi attack ‘censored’ on Weibo

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 7:10am

As China reels from the latest deadly terror attack in the restive western region of Xinjiang, many have complained that breaking news alerts of the bomb-and-knife attack outside a railway station in Urumqi were censored on the mainland’s most popular social media platform on Wednesday night.

Beijing has condemned the attack as an act of terrorism and pointed a finger at Xinjiang separatist forces, hours after the attack at around 7pm on Wednesday evening killed three people and injured 79. 

Two of those killed were suspected assailants who detonated explosive devices they were carrying, and the third victim was an innocent bystander, the official People's Daily said on Thursday. 

An English-language account operated by the official Xinhua news agency, “Xinhua - I report”, was the first to post a news alert on Weibo, formerly known as Sina Weibo until a recent name change, within an hour of the explosion rocking the largest railway station in the capital of Xinjiang.

“A blast hits a railway station in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region,” the post read.

The news came hot on the heels of state television broadcast reports on President Xi Jinping’s four-day tour in the troubled province during its evening news bulletin.

Major mainland media outlets including Weibo’s official news account “Breaking News”, which has over 33 million followers, quickly reposted the brief alert from Xinhua, which is commonly taken as the official tone of the Chinese authorities.

Within half an hour, the state news agency updated its Weibo account with a post about Xi’s speech on terrorism, in which he wrapped up his tour of Urumqi by saying Beijing vowed to deploy a “strike-first” strategy against terrorism.

Meanwhile, People’s Daily also followed up with a post saying “the injured have been sent to hospital”.

“Stay tuned for our follow-up report,” the state newspaper told its 19.5 million followers.

In an unusual turn of events, the post was soon conspicuously absent from Sina Weibo. So were the initial report by Xinhua English and all news outlets’ reposts of the alert.

Pictures showing blood on suitcases and debris on the ground were also censored, according to Freeweibo, a website that archives censored posts.

Shocked and confused, microbloggers bombarded the official news account of Sina Weibo with questions over why a major news event would be censored on the mainland’s most popular social media platform.

“You crazy, Sina?” a microblogger from Shenzhen who called himself “forever 25 degree” wrote in a comment on the latest post of Weibo’s official news account.

He added that search results for “4.30 Xinjiang railway station blast” were not available on Weibo, with the reason given online as “in accordance with law and regulation”.

Some users complained Weibo had censored their posts about the blast.

“I just want to say that we have every right to know the truth,” a microblogger from Xinjiang who called herself “Xiao Xin” wrote in her comments.

Others started wondering if the initial reports were untruthful.

“Was it a false alert? Or was it too sensitive to be posted on Sina Weibo?” a microblogger from Shanghai posted.

Despite being one of the more active news outlets on Sina Weibo, the “Breaking News” account maintained silence for a further two hours, without posting any updates on the blast or other news events, until China Central Television and Xinhua finished drafting an official news brief on the explosion at around 11.30pm on Wednesday.

“Shortly after a train arrived from Chengdu, a blast happened at an exit of the railway station. People injured in the blast have been sent to hospital, and the station has resumed normal operations. The cause of the blast is still under investigation,” the updated post, labelled “news alert,” said.

“Is it an ‘alert’? Shame on you [CCTV],” Chen Zhaohui, chairman of Baijia Food, one of the mainland’s largest manufacturers of instant noodles, wrote in a comment on the post.

“The right to be informed shows the authorities’ basic trust in its citizens, especially in the face of emergencies,” Wang Ran, an investment banker based in Beijing wrote in his comment. “If you [the authorities] don’t trust the public, why on earth should they trust you?”

Sina News declined to comment.