Wednesday, June 03, 2015

China censors information in wake of Yangtze cruise disaster

Chinese media is being heavily censored in the wake of the Yangtze river cruise ship disaster which has left at least 26 dead and more than 400 others possibly drowned.

Media control

The cruise ship, the Eastern Star, carrying 456 mostly elderly people on board, overturned in bad weather on Monday night.

The censorship and media control began almost as soon as the boat went down at 21:28 local time [13:28 GMT] in the Jianli section of the river. Official media were banned from reporting the incident for nearly 10 hours [Sky News / BBC].

Some 48 hours after the incident questions are being raised over why the ship sailed into a storm [BBC]. But reports are being carefully controlled and kept within guidelines set by China's propaganda department.

Officials have ordered outlets not to dispatch their own reporters to the scene and local journalists already there have been recalled [CDT].

Positive spin

Chinese journalists have also been told to focus on the "positive part" of the story, such as the successful rescue accounts, and ordered to use only information released by state-run outlets - CCTV and Xinhua [CDT / WSJ].

Only 14 passengers had been rescued by Wednesday evening, including the ship's captain and chief engineer who are in police custody for questioning. And now the relatives of the some 400 missing are beginning to ask questions as to how such a tragedy could occur.


Anger boiled over on Wednesday as the lack of information led to frustration amongst some relatives of those found dead or still missing. Information on the disaster has been tightly controlled and officials gave little away during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, providing no figures on deaths or survivors and taking no questions.

A video shared on social media showed pushing and shoving between police and angry relatives outside a local government building in China's commercial hub of Shanghai, where many of the passengers hailed from.

"The police first formed a human wall and didn't let us in. Then the relatives got excited and started to shout. Some policemen hit people," said one young woman whose mother was on the boat.

The mother of seven-year-old Yang Chenlin who was on the boat with her grandparents, said relatives were desperate for more information. "We need to go to the site. That's our common appeal," she said [Daily Mail].

Past history

Media blackouts or strict controls concerning national disasters in China are nothing new. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the Wenzhou train crash media reports were highly censored [BBC / NYT]. More recently information and discussion surrounding the News Year stampede in Shanghai was also heavily suppressed [SCMP].  

But despite criticism of such controls little has changed over the years. Indeed censorship and information control has arguably increased.

Road blocks

Blocks haven't been confined to the Internet. Following the capsizing of the Eastern Star roadblocks were sited about two kilometres from the scene, with cars being turned back even before that point. Authorities also limited access for foreign journalists to a brief river trip. Journalists are even being barred from speaking to relatives of the missing passengers.

The censorship is heaviest on social media where questions over the fate of the passengers have been deleted. "Eastern Star" is currently the most censored term on the microblog Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter [Dalje / QZ]


And for companies like Sina there is a constant risk of being shut down should they not employ strong enough censorship controls. Indeed as recently as April this year the Cyberspace Administration of China [CAC] was quoted as saying they would "seriously" punish Sina, with possible measures including "a complete shut down of its Internet news services" if it did not improve its censorship, according to Xinhua [Telegraph].

Controls have tightened under China's current president Xi Jinping, and according to Reporters Sans Frontieres China ranks 175 out of 180 countries in its 2014 worldwide index of press freedom.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Number of websites blocked in the UK grows

The number of websites being blocked by  Internet Service Providers [ISPs] in the UK is growing with government agencies and High Court orders forcing the big Internet providers to prevent access to certain material online.

Few users will notice

Most Internet users would be unlikely to notice since, at present, the blocks are mostly being imposed on sites deemed to be distributing 'illegal' content.

In May 2012  ISPs in Britain were forced by a court order to block the file sharing website Pirate Bay. The move was applauded by the recording industry, but some criticised the ban saying it marked a "slippery slope towards Internet censorship".

The blocking of Pirate Bay was the first high profile blocking of a web service, although the Internet Watch Foundation and Cleanfeed had been employed for around a decade to identify and block access to child pornography.

But while there was no uproar over the actions of the IWF and Cleanfeed, the blocking of Pirate Bay created a storm of protests. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, at the time called the move "pointless and dangerous". Talking to the BBC, Killock said the calls for greater censorship would grow. "It will fuel calls for further, wider and even more drastic calls for Internet censorship of many kinds, from pornography to extremism," he said. "Internet censorship is growing in scope and becoming easier. Yet it never has the effect desired. It simply turns criminals into heroes."

Copyright infringement

Nonetheless, the efforts to block websites that infringed copyright by distributing content such as films and music has grown almost exponentially.

In 2013 around 30 websites were blocked, most of them offering illegal music downloads. In 2014 the focus changed to sites sharing or streaming movies such as Viooz and Zmovie. However, a number of sites targeted dealt with the sale and distribution of counterfeit goods such as fake Cartier watches [World Trade Mark Review].

By the end of 2014 an additional 100 websites related to file sharing were blocked. The list has continued to grow with a further 20 sites added to the list [Wikipedia: List of websites blocked in the UK].

There has been a shift too of the types of content being shared as well as the types of sites being blocked. In May this year a new High Court ruling ordered UK's major ISPs to block websites serving up eBooks [BBC].

Digital books

Electronic books or eBooks are becoming increasingly popular with the advent of Kindle and Google Books. However many authors and publishers are losing potential sales and royalties because of the growing trend to illegally download pirated content.

"A third of publisher revenues now come from digital sales but unfortunately this rise in the digital market has brought with it a growth in online infringement," the Publishers Association's chief executive Richard Mollet said in a statement.

Effects of cloud storage

For publishers, artists, authors and movie producers it is a growing problem since many platforms allow the storage of such material in the cloud with little or no oversight as to whether the content has been legitimately purchased.

For example users may add mobi eBook or PDF files to one's Kindle library or epub or PDF files to Google Books. In fact Google Books is also having problems where users are illegally selling eBooks [IBT]. 

Users of Google Music can upload up to 50,000 songs to the service and whilst many may simply upload songs ripped from their own CD collection there may be a great number of individuals uploading illegally downloaded content.

While the likes of YouTube, Vimeo and DailyMotion attempt to weed out copyrighted content they face an uphill task of removing such material.

Copyrighted material has also been shared and continues to be distributed through cloud services such as Google Drive, Microsoft's SkyDrive and even DropBox as well as the less reputable services such as Mega.

For those attempting to stop the pirates it's becoming a game of whack-a-mole since as soon as one piracy website gets blocked another pops up in its place or simply changes its name and IP address.

Tracking users

In the Queen's speech it was announced that the British government is to introduce new laws forcing ISPs to hold on to far more data about their users' online behaviour, a move design to counter extremism. However, the law could just as easily be applied to monitor other online activity and track individuals using file sharing sites or downloading illegal content [BBC].

It may not feel quite like using the Chinese Internet yet where a high degree of censorship, blocking and ISP monitoring is employed. But there appears to be definite shift in government policy in terms of policing the Internet. It's not just the UK either. Other countries such as Australia is also debating whether to introduce site-blocking legislation [SMH].

See also: tvnewswatch: Panic sets in after Megaupload shutdown / tvnewswatch: Internet censorship a step closer after Pirate Bay is blocked / tvnewswatch: Blocked website list grows in war on piracy

tvnewswatch, London, UK