Sunday, August 14, 2011

China gets disaster-savvy

China Gets Savvier With Disaster Coverage

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (July 29) --
When a massive blast from a damaged gas pipeline rattled the Chinese city of Nanjing on Wednesday, killing at least 13 and wounding 120 more, the state-run media that might once have cooperated in a cover-up was all over it. But critics say what looks like a new openness is really part of the government's drive to stymie more troublesome independent news outlets.

Within hours of the explosion, Xinhua, the state-run news service, released a detailed account of events in both Chinese and English.

But when a local TV station tried to get video at the scene, an official stopped the crew, saying, "Who gave permission for you to conduct a live broadcast?" and making them turn off the cameras, according to a post on the popular blog EastSouthWestNorth. That exchange was aired on live TV and itself soon went viral on the Internet.

The unequal treatment shows Beijing's unique, narrow concept of "press freedom" these days, and highlights the increasingly complex media landscape in today's China.

Once ham-handed censors who employed sweeping news blackouts, China's government is now playing an increasingly sophisticated game of message control. It is allowing national state-run media much more leeway in reporting disasters, in order to get ahead of the Twitter-clones and other sites before the Internet rumor mill gets out of hand and causes public disturbances.

But at the same time, the government is limiting other, independent media coverage -- either blocking it outright or ordering journalists to use officially sanctioned reports from state-run media instead of their own reporting.

"We are not seeing more openness so much as much more clever management of disaster reporting," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based China watcher and scholar, in an e-mail. "Officials are becoming more adept at getting ahead of the notification curve -- the coverage on the Internet and through cellphones."

China Gets Savvier with Disaster Coverage
Greenpeace / AFP / Getty Images

The game played by officials has become increasingly complex as it seeks to balance the state's overriding interest in social stability with the desires of China's 420 million Internet users to express themselves more freely in chat rooms, blogs and micro-blogs, in line with China's modernization.

"Officials worry about too much information flying in different directions, so they want to control the message," said Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "In the Nanjing case, they were worried -- especially with Twitter and all that -- that they would lose control of the message and let rumors get ahead of the facts."

Twitter is blocked in China, but similar services run by Chinese companies have recently boomed in popularity.

"So officials are trying to respond to the need for information, but also to restrain media by making them follow the lead of Xinhua and the China Daily," Yang said.

China has adopted that approach for a variety of bad news. When a recent spate of suicides at a factory in southern China drew widespread attention, for example, China at first gave the media a free hand. Journalists crowded the campus of the company Foxconn, where the suicides occurred.

But on May 27, according to the South China Morning Post, a directive came down from central and provincial propaganda units to local media outlets: There was to be no more independent reporting on the Foxconn suicides; use Xinhua reports instead.

In the case of another recent disaster, the situation is murkier. On July 16, two oil pipelines exploded in the port city of Dalian, on China's northeast coast, leading to massive fires and what Greenpeace China says is China's worst-ever oil-spill.

Yang Ailun, head of climate and energy for Greenpeace China, said in a phone interview that she didn't know if or to what extent the government had controlled media coverage, but that the accident hadn't received the press it deserved.

"We felt quite puzzled," said Yang. "With a disaster of this scale, there was not enough domestic media attention to this. It could be part of media censorship."

She said Xinhua was covering the story, but its reports were not sufficient in terms of warning the public which beaches and areas would be affected by the spill.

"For a disaster like this, you need daily reports to warn people," said Yang. "We noticed only a couple of state media, and [Communist] Party media were active. And other media were not as active."

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