TV crew on AIDS beat, beaten in China

HIV awareness may spread via Yahoo, UNDP deal

UPDATED: Nov. 30, 2008

BANGKOK -- Just ahead of World AIDS Day Monday, a Belgian TV journalist and his crew reporting on the spread of the disease in China were assaulted and robbed by county officials in Henan province, highlighting the ongoing difficulty Beijing has enforcing official media openness begun around the Olympics.
On Thursday, after they interviewed several HIV/AIDS support groups in Henan, in Central China, Belgian journalist Tom Van de Weghe and his team from Flemish public television VRT were beaten and robbed of cash and equipment by eight men recruited by authorities in Henan province, according to The Foreign Correspondents Club in China.

"I thought they were going to kill us," Van de Weghe said in an FCCC statement. "One of them gave me a heavy blow to the head. They acted like animals. It was terrifying."

Locals said the attackers were county officials, the FCCC said.

In 2005, China arrested 15 people for involvement in illegal blood-selling schemes blamed for widespread HIV/AIDS infections in the 1990s. The arrests were linked to 106 cases of unsafe blood collection, illegal organization of people to sell plasma and “serious malpractice” in blood market supervision, Vice Minister of Health Ma Xiaowei told official Chinese media at the time.

The recent incident in Henan echoes one further south in the spring in which a crew from "60 Minutes" of CBS was assaulted when trying to film a plant processing toxic waste near the South China boomtown of Shenzhen.

Beijing promised free access to foreign media reporting in China starting a year before the Olympics and extended the rules indefinitely after the Games ended in what reporters in China had hoped was a sign of lasting change.

Even as foreign reporters continue to be blocked from covering news that might challenge the authority of the leading Communist party, AIDS awareness in China may yet spread via the Web.

The VRT incident, also publicized Friday by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, follows close on the heels of an initiative by Yahoo! China and the United Nations Development Program to provide China's 210 million Internet users with HIV prevention information even if they are not searching for it.

For instance, Yahoo China's online ad space will ask viewers searching key words such as 'sex,' 'porn' and 'gay,' "Do you know about HIV and HIV Testing?" then provide links to HIV/AIDS information.