Editorial: From SARS to tainted milk, criminal censorship

    (We would like to request online and printed press to support press
    freedom in China by graciously publishing this editorial in their
    editorial, opinion or letters to the editor sections. This editorial may
    be diffused starting today until next Thursday, the 9th of October.)

    MONTREAL, Oct. 3 /CNW Telbec/ - The evidence is accumulating. The
censorship imposed on the Chinese media about the contaminated milk scandal
had disastrous consequences. Reliable information about a wave of
hospitalisations of new-born babies linked to powdered milk made by Sanlu was
gathered back in July by a journalist working for the investigative weekly
Nanfang Zhoumo. But his editor decided not to publish for fear of reprisals.
As a result, China had to wait until after the Olympic Games, until early
September, before another news media dared to publish this explosive news.
    How did this happen? How was it that the Chinese government once again
put control of news and information before the protection of its citizens'
health? And how was it that companies, some of them foreign ones, were able to
keep a scandal of this scale secret for such a long time?
    The Propaganda Department - a censorship office that answers directly to
the Communist Party's Politburo - circulated a 21-point directive to the
Chinese media on the eve of the Beijing Olympics detailing subjects that were
banned or for which coverage was to be restricted. Point 8 was very clear:
"All subjects linked to food safety, such as mineral water that causes cancer,
are off-limits." In the face of worldwide mistrust of the quality of its
products, the Chinese government chose silence. The Chinese press had to say
nothing. The editors of liberal publications such as Nanfang Zhoumo know only
too well the price to be paid for violating the decrees issued by Beijing's
censors. Three members of the same media group spent several years in prison
after reporting a case of SARS without official permission in 2003. One of
them was released only in February.
    The tainted milk affair is a just a tragic repetition of the mistakes
made in 2003. The SARS epidemic emerged at the start of the winter of 2002 but
the Chinese authorities opted to cover up the truth for as long as possible in
order to avoid a flight of foreign investment. When a military doctor revealed
that Chinese officials were hiding the SARS epidemic, the government finally
allowed the press to talk about it and swore that the same mistake would not
be repeated. If only that had been the case.
    The authorities have always tried to suppress food and health scandals.
The police banned foreign journalists from visiting provinces affected by bird
flu in 2004. The authorities tried to censor information about an epidemic of
foot-and-mouth disease in the eastern province of Shandong in April 2007. It
has always been hard for the press to go to villages in the centre of the
country where thousands for Chinese are dying of cancer or AIDS.
    The Chinese government went so far as to inscribe its criminal censorship
policies in stone in 2006, promulgating an emergencies management law which
included heavy fines for news media that publish unauthorised information
about industrial accidents, natural disasters, public health emergencies or
social unrest. The authorities had initially even envisaged prison sentences
for violators before backing off.
    The censors continue to prevent the truth about the tainted milk scandal
from coming out. A blog post by the editor who did not dare publish what his
newspaper knew back in July has been removed from the Internet and he is now
being harassed. Chinese journalists have been expelled from the province where
Sanlu has its headquarters. And a group of volunteer lawyers who got together
to help the parents of poisoned babies are under pressure. Meanwhile, the New
Zealand company Fonterra, a shareholder in Sanlu, has been slow to provide
information to the authorities.
    The government is now moving to help the poisoned babies and identify
those responsible for the crisis. The Chinese president has even called on
companies to learn the lessons from the scandal. But has the government
thought about its own role in all of this? And what about foreign governments?
They prefer to restrict the imports of Chinese products rather than clearly
tell the Chinese government that its behaviour is irresponsible. And the World
Health Organisation? It is counting the victims while its director-general,
Margaret Chan, has not found anything better to do than advise Chinese women
to breast-feed more often.
    Spurred on by increasingly restive bloggers, the Chinese media are trying
to fulfill the role that the press everywhere is meant to play, that of
questioning and challenging the government. But to do that, they will first
have to obtain the closure of the Propaganda Department, a bastion of
conservatism whose sole goal is to muzzle the news media at any price.

           Jean-François Julliard, Secretary-general of Reporters Without
           Borders International
              François Bugingo, President of Reporter Without Borders Canada

For further information:

For further information: Katherine Borlongan, Executive Director,
Reporters Without Borders Canada, (514) 521-4111, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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