China Reaffirms Control Over News

June 26, 2006 12:00 am Last Updated: June 26, 2006 12:00 am

BEIJING – China is considering fines for media outlets which report emergencies without authorisation, a Chinese newspaper reported on Monday, reaffirming the Communist Party's control over the flow of news.

The draft law would also fine news outlets that “illegally” report the handling of emergencies, the Beijing News said.

Government agencies already tightly control the release of information on emergencies, and unauthorised attempts to report such incidents have led to lengthy jail terms for stealing, or leaking, state secrets.

But China, which has a long track record of imposing news blackouts on accidents and disasters, last year “declassified” death tolls from natural disasters, presenting the step as part of government efforts to improve transparency.

The new law, if enacted, would reaffirm the government's role in controlling information and the flow of news.

Covering Up

“News media that illegally report or make false reports on emergency situations and their handling will be fined between 50,000 yuan ($6,250) and 100,000 yuan where the violations are serious or have serious consequences,” the Beijing News quoted the draft law as saying.

“According to the regulations, the people's government… should report on the development and handling of emergency situations in a unified, accurate and timely way, and manage the release of relevant reports to news media.”

The proposed law covers “sudden events” and “social safety events” but offers few specifics. In China these terms could cover riots, natural disasters and outbreaks of disease such as SARS or bird flu.

China has a long history of covering up emergency incidents, and news blackouts are regularly imposed by sensitive propaganda mandarins nervous about the effects of news reports on the image of the ruling party.

The deaths of 85,000 people in the central province of Henan in 1975, when dams burst during a typhoon, were revealed only in a book on China's worst 20th century disasters in 1998.

Last November, local officials in northeast Jilin province failed to report a toxic spill in the Songhua river for several days. Harbin, a city of 9 million in Heilongjiang province, had to shut off public water supplies for nearly a week.