Sat, Jun 14, 2008 - Page 5 News List

China's post-quake press freedom now a fading memory

AFP , DUJIANGYAN, CHINA

Expelled, rebuffed or simply told what to write, reporters covering China's earthquake aftermath are finding the initial free rein they enjoyed a month ago a fading memory.

The unprecedented access they were given in the days immediately after the May 12 disaster raised hopes among some observers of a new era of openness.

Foreign and domestic reporters were allowed to flock to the disaster zone, enjoying the strange sensation of roaming freely as Chinese authorities were preoccupied with rescue operations.

A month later, those hopes seem buried under the rubble.

The Chinese Communist Party has since restricted access to foreign reporters as it commandeers the media message to glorify the government’s response and avoid anything embarrassing or critical of it.

“This so-called media openness was only temporary, lasting about a week or so. This does not mean China is now open to foreign reporting,” said Li Datong (李大同), a Chinese journalist who was sacked in 2006 as editor of the weekly Bingdian (Freezing Point) for publishing stories critical of the government.

“After that first week, the party’s controls were reimposed and all of the Chinese media sang from the same sheet of music, praising the government and earthquake heroes,” he said.

In the latest sign, police on Thursday kicked foreign journalists out of a city where the collapse of several schools triggered accusations from parents of hundreds of dead children that corruption had led to shabby construction.

The expulsions, including of two Agence France-Presse staff members, came just a day after China vowed unfettered access to foreign reporters in the disaster zone.

China’s media had provided regular updates on the Sichuan quake toll and other key developments, even delving briefly into the allegations of shoddy school construction.

But five days after the quake, China’s propaganda czar Li Changchun (李長春) told major state-run media outlets to focus on “the series of important earthquake disaster relief decisions and measures of the central party committee and the [government],” Xinhua news agency said.

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