The Age -
CHINA'S worst natural disaster since 1976 has shown the limits and pervasiveness of the ruling Communist Party's strict controls on media and information.
Within an hour of the earthquake of May 12, the powerful Central Propaganda Department was calling newspapers and other media to ban reporters from the disaster zone. But news of a serious quake had already spread via 140 million internet users and 580 million mobile phone users.
Reporters and editors across the country, some with staff about to board flights to the epicentre in Sichuan, debated whether to ignore the edict.
Many of the "docile" media hesitated but bolder outfits did not, setting off unprecedented coverage of the quake and its devastating impact.
The death toll is now confirmed at 55,239 people in the province, with another 24,949 missing, Sichuan Vice-Governor Li Chengyun told a Beijing press conference yesterday. Hundreds of deaths have been reported in neighbouring provinces. More than 5 million are homeless.
A day after the quake, when it was clear the Propaganda Department's edict had been ignored, another propaganda arm, the Government's General Administration of Press and Publications, issued a more realistic memo. It asked media to make "timely and accurate" reports "on quake-hit areas and victims to reassure the public" and directed local officials to co-operate with reporters.
Chinese journalism thus began almost non-stop broadcasting of even the most graphic pictures of the devastation. Some Chinese journalists, especially those in their 20s, have been euphoric because they defied the censors and for the first time in many of their careers were filing first-hand reports from the scene.
A closer examination shows, however, most of the reporting has focused on non-threatening storylines — extraordinary rescues, miraculous survivals, heroism, heartbreaking losses and the laudable efforts of Premier Wen Jiabao to comfort and reassure victims that help was on its way.
According to Chinese analysts and senior journalists, most of whom decline to be named, there has been little analysis of earthquake prevention measures or apparently substandard construction of schools and other buildings, and few negative reports.
The initial wave of anger, questioning why so many school buildings — especially newer ones — collapsed and killed thousands of children when other government buildings withstood the quake, was confined largely to the internet, to blogs and chat rooms, and the Hong Kong-based media (which, under the deal returning the former British colony to Chinese rule, enjoy greater freedom than media on the mainland).
Exceptions included the investigative economic magazine Caijing, which questioned the official decision to continue the Olympic torch relay.
Another exception was the Shanghai Securities News. It editorialised that corruption had allowed substandard buildings that proved fatal in the quake.
The Hong Kong-based Phoenix Cable Television's host Liang Wei Dou showed emails and spoke of phone contact with Chinese journalists in the field complaining of dysfunctional management structures holding up relief operations and inadequate training of soldiers for disaster recovery.
Chinese-language papers including Hong Kong's most popular tabloid, Apple Daily, and Takung Pao have also published stories on tents going missing in Chengdu — but the websites of these papers are blocked on the mainland.
The English South China Morning Post ran a Reuters report about a demonstration by hundreds of people at Wufu, demanding that someone be held accountable for the collapse of Fuxing's primary school, where 127 children died.
But these were the exceptions. Negative coverage on the internet, such as questions about the efficiency of the Chinese Red Cross or rumours that heavy dam construction in the area had caused or contributed to the quake, have since been removed. One Beijing resident complained it had been difficult to find "any rational thinking" in Chinese reporting.
"There have only been stories of love and caring or sadness, but nothing on how or why this has happened," the resident said.
A senior Chinese journalist complained to a colleague in Beijing that the Chinese Government's days were numbered because the rescue operations he had seen had been chaotic. But the story he filed for his newspaper the next day reflected none of those concerns. It was a touching story of survival amid tragedy.
Beijing-based political analyst Russell Leigh Moses said the Government had seized back control of the narrative.
■ Australia's first shipment of a $1 million package, including 250 tents, 10,000-plus water purification tabs, 1600 mosquito nets, blankets, four generators and water tanks, plus search-and-rescue equipment, arrived in Chengdu yesterday.
With MAYA LI, AFP