07/05/2006, 00.00
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Media professionals and users against new censorship

More and more people criticise draft legislation that would gag news reporting on natural disasters and emergencies. For some, people would rely on rumours and chaos would follow.

Beijing (AsiaNews/RFA) – In China journalists and online commentators are leaping into a widening debate over proposed legislation on coverage of natural disasters and emergencies.

The new bill would ban media from reporting before local authorities made public statements and impose fines ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 Yuan (€ 5,000/10,000; US$ 6,200/12,500) on anyone defying the law.

News covered include coalmine explosions, environmental disasters, public health threats, or even clashes between police and farmers. It would also affect the foreign press, including that of Hong Kong.

"Using the law to affirm that government units have administrative control over news reporting is a very dangerous thing to do," an editorial in the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily, translated by a Hong Kong-based blogger.

"The restrictive regulations on the media in the draft law will not only cause more ridiculous things to happen during suddenly breaking incidents, but it also reflect the fact that some people still do not understand the role and function that the news media have in society," the editorial said.

"If this becomes law, [. . . it] will lead to chaos, as people begin to rely on rumours for their information. This will be even less desirable for the government," online writer Zan Aizong said.

Top government adviser Cui Keqing countered saying that the authorities wanted to ensure accurate reporting.

However, "[t]his ingrained habit of rumours among the media is in fact a product of the government's strict control of information. The government's first thought is always how it is going to cover up what is happening and stop information leaking out," said independent writer Liu Xiaobo.

"The government was forced to improve its transparency following the exposure of the SARS cover-up, and again over the Songhua River contamination disaster, in order to avoid chaos caused by rumours," Liu noted.

Indeed, the "current system of government spokespeople is useless. If you call the telephone number that they give out publicly for the spokesperson, no one answers. And you can never find the person who is the designated spokesperson. For example, the spokesperson for the State Environmental Protection Agency is Pan Yue. If you ring that number, you'll never get through to this person called Pan Yue," Aizong said. (PB)

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