Thursday, April 15, 2010

China censors earthquake news

Concern is mounting and questions are being asked about restrictions imposed on the reporting of the Qinghai earthquake which has so far resulted in over 600 deaths. On Thursday Xinhua carried a story in which it described how teachers used their bare hands to dig students from the rubble of a collapsed school building. The article stated that at least 34 students had perished and many others, possibly up to 200, were still buried after the Yushu Nima River Elementary School was destroyed by the 7.1 magnitude quake. But within hours of publishing the article it was deleted. Several schools are said to have collapsed and at least 66 pupils and 10 teachers were among the dead, Xinhua reported. 

The deletion of the article was too late to completely eradicate the news from the web. The People's Daily picked it up briefly, though that too was soon deleted, and several other websites also republished the article [Wenweipo - Chinese]. Advisories quickly circulated inside Chinese media outlets saying reporters must check sources. But the deletion raises the suspicion that news may be being censored deliberately to avoid accusations that poor construction was to blame. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake the government was highly criticised after many schools collapsed while other nearby government buildings remained intact. 

In Yushu, the epicentre of Wednesday's quake, may residents spent an uncomfortable night in the open as temperatures plummeted. The freezing weather, high altitude and thin air have also made rescue efforts difficult. Tibetan Buddhist monks have turned out in force to help rescue efforts, although the town's main Buddhist monastery lays in ruins on a nearby hillside. "We were the first to help when the earthquake came. We monks are here to help the people just as much as the government," said one monk. They joined soldiers and firefighters many of them using their bare hands to dig through the rubble. But even the aid provided by monks has seemingly been omitted from official Chinese media [Xinhua] though the China Daily did mention that 500 monks had travelled to the area to "provide locals bottled water, instant noodles and dried food".

Foreign media has also spoken of the difficulties in reporting from the region. Several tweets published to Twitter by reporters spoke of restrictions imposed by authorities. Telegraph reporter Malcolm Moore posted a message saying that he had been told "all foreign journalists [had been] banned from [the] quake zone" and that Chinese blogs were reporting road blocks 80 km outside Yushu. Nonetheless several journalists did make it close to the scene. CNN's John Vause arrived late Wednesday night and on Thursday described the tragic scene of bodies being pulled from collapsed homes.

The tragic scenes have been stifled in Chinese media, many focusing on the rescue efforts mounted by soldiers and armed police. However, pictures taken by local photographers have been posted to the web, though many such sites are likely to be deleted by authorities. Pictures on one blog showed residents tending to the injured, Buddhist monks and soldiers digging through the rubble and several images of dead school children, a tragic reminder of the 2008 earthquake.

The earthquake has already prompted many aid organisations to offer help including the Red Cross, UNICEF and Direct Relief International. Even Google has set up a special Crisis Response page with links to aid agencies and a person finder tool, though for a country that so readily block social networking sites it is unlikely it will prove useful in Yushu. The censored news is of little surprise to many Chinese people. One Beijing man told tvnewswatch he was unsurprised at reports about the schools being deleted. "Sometimes, we just know what they let us know," the man named Sun said [Yahoo News / BBC / Sky News / CNN / Wikipedia].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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