07/04/2006, 00.00
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Local, overseas media to face fines for "untrue" news, says government

Leaking news about social emergencies will be punishable by fines of between 5,000 to 10,000 euros. The clampdown on blogs and internet sites is also increasing. AsiaNews is one of the blocked sites.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – China's stranglehold on the press is set to become tighter: a bill of law proposing fines of between 50,000 to 100,000 yuan (5,000 to 10,000 euros) for publishing unauthorised reports of emergencies, will be applied not only to local but also foreign media, including Hong Kong agencies. This was revealed by Wang Yongqing, vice-director of the State Council Legislative Affairs Office. Wang said the law was just a means to combat irresponsible journalism, which spread untrue news and caused "grave social consequences".

The National People's Congress is currently debating the bill which could become law next year. It forbids the media from publishing news about "emergency situations" without first getting statements from local leaders. The list of emergencies listed by the law include: natural disasters, public health hazards and "social security crises", among them clashes between peasants and police.

Rampant economic development in recent decades lies at the root of many social revolts, which are forever on the increase, and of several ecological disasters, sources of concern for the people that provide plenty of space to criticize the government.

The law doubtless aims to rein in facile sensationalizing of information, but it risks producing a news blackout. The Chinese government, by tradition, has always sought to diminish the significance of crises.

Li Datong, ex-editor of the Bingdian supplement – fired for being too open in his investigations and liberal in his interpretations of history – told the South China Morning Post: "We all know that the first government response to a public emergency is to lie. For example, they denied there was a Sars epidemic at the beginning [for five months]. As they cut off water supplies in Harbin after the Songhua River chemical spill, at first they claimed they were only repairing water pipes."

China already has other laws protecting so-called "state secrets" that sentence those who circulate them in the media to decades in prison. News about religious persecution is listed among these "secrets".

Even the internet is being increasingly monitored. Recently, Cai Wu, a government spokesman, said the government wanted to start censoring the "unhealthy information" spread by blogs. There is a plan in the pipeline to register all blogs and sites where Chinese can chat online. There are at least 60 million blogs in China.

Meanwhile, censorship of web sites and search engines continues, clamping down on words like democracy, Tibet, Taiwan, religious persecution. Recently, some youth typed in the address of AsiaNews (usually blocked) at an Internet café in Beijing. The homepage appeared for 30 seconds and then disappeared. To read an item of news, it was necessary to keep typing the web address. Within a short time, two policemen came to control the place.

Many observers say China's commitment to web censorship is practically useless: many Chinese have programmes available to bypass web filters.

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