China nails foreign TV news year after quake

Reporters harassed, barred from reaching victims' families

Related: Chinese president leads televised mourning

BEIJING--Global TV networks in China are bracing themselves for difficulty covering the first anniversary of a deadly earthquake after reports of attacks on journalists trying to interview families grieving lost children and griping about government inaction.

In the run up to Tuesday, May 12--the day last year when an 8.0 quake killed nearly 90,000 people in southwest China's Sichuan province--European television and print reporters have been harassed and detained while trying to talk to parents of the 126 children killed when a school collapsed near the town of Fuxin.

In three separate incidents reported last week to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, a Finnish television crew and a Financial Times reporter were attacked in Fuxin on May 5, then, on May 6, an Irish Times reporter was detained by police for trying to meet parents of children who died in a school collapse in Juyuan.

Several other international journalists told the FCCC that they were forbidden by Sichuan police from interviewing grieving parents during the "sensitive" period around the quake anniversary.

The harassment is occurring despite Chinese laws introduced in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics that were supposed to allow international journalists to travel freely in China and to speak to anyone willing to be interviewed. 

Chinese media does not enjoy the same supposed freedom and is controlled and censored by the state. Meanwhile, the rules governing foreign reporters appear not to have trickled down to the provinces or actively are being ignored.

As the big U.S. television networks gathered their broadcast equipment to fly south to Sichuan from Beijing on Friday, producers said they would be exercising extra caution.

Each producer who spoke with THR said they would be likely to register with the authorities upon arrival in a throwback to pre-Olympics rules.

"With TV it's just so much harder to be quiet about things, especially at a time like now," said an NBC producer, while an ABC producer said, "It's best to register because otherwise you can lose so much time when you are detained."

In a season filled with hot button dates such as June 4, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on student democracy activists at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing again has tightened media controls on independent reporting.

The government recently issued a broad statement declaring that the school collapses in Sichuan that killed thousands of children had nothing to do with corruption, poor construction or a lack of government oversight, as many parents allege.

Sure to arouse further anger among Sichuan's parents--and make access to them harder still--China on May 7 put the official number of dead and missing schoolchildren at 5,335, far lower than the number compiled from news reports at the time.

Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and building designer who has been compiling his own student death toll, told Reuters he did not believe the government numbers. "First, these numbers far from reflect reality. Second, they are irresponsible."

Ai said last week that his volunteers had confirmed 5,200 deaths, and that there were probably another 1,000 or so who had also died. The total figure may be around 7,000, he added.

Paolo Longo, the head of Italian television network RAI in China, returned from Sichuan over the weekend, leaving a camera crew behind. "Everywhere we went we were stopped, surrounded by plainclothes police demanding to know what we were doing, telling us that the area was closed. A lot of areas are closed," Longo said on Sunday. "It's harder to talk to people about the collapsed schools than it is to talk to people about Tiananmen."

China's pattern of harassing foreign journalists and angry sources is nothing new. One producer for SKY News recalls reporting in Sichuan last July, two months after the quake and one month before the Olympics.  "We were followed and bothered nonstop," the producer said.

The FCCC has logged more than 335 cases of reporting interference in China since January 1, 2007. This includes more than 12 after the quake. The club's Web site defines interference as "violence, destruction of journalistic materials, detention, harassment of sources and staff, interception of communications, denial of access to public areas, being questioned in an intimidating manner by authorities, being reprimanded officially, being followed, and being subjected to other obstacles not in keeping with international practices."