Monday, April 27, 2009

Backtracking on Promises

The first year anniversary to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake is fast approaching and media, domestic and foreign are currently trying to file their stories in news specials.

While domestic media have been given pretty much free access through guided tours, they know not to tread on sensitive topics like the shoddily-built schools and the numbers of students who died.

Chinese reporters also have access to mostly cheerful residents who will give soundbites saying how thankful they are to the government for helping them after the earthquake when many still don't have a permanent place to live, or infrastructure still not built.

But one year on, most people want to know why the government-built schools that collapsed while other buildings around them were still standing. They also want to know the total number of students who perished which to this day has not been released.

And sometimes it is left to the foreign journalists to ask these tough questions and demand accountability.

However, in recent weeks, some have been harassed, detained, or told to go through bureaucratic hoops even though before, during and after the Olympics the central government promised foreign journalists could have reasonably free access to report around the country.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has documented three cases so far:

On April 1, a French journalist was working in Dujiangyuan on a story about a family whose daughter was killed in a school collapse when he and the family were stopped and detained by both uniformed and plainclothes police. The parents were released. The reporter was forced to go the police station and informed he needed to register to report in the area.

On April 2, a German reporter was barred from Yingxiu while attempting to cover the area ahead of the first anniversary of the quake. The reporter was in a public cemetery amid a group of Chinese journalists interviewing relatives of the dead when authorities approached him and told him he had failed to register. They led him away from the cemetery.

On April 6, a German television crew working in Shifang and nearby areas was physically prevented from filming and detained for over five hours. When the crew was waiting to meet the father of a child who died in a school collapse, unidentified men grabbed the man in front of the journalists.

However, on October 17 last year minutes before the rules giving foreign reporters more freedoms was set to expire, the Foreign Ministry held a hastily-organized press conference to announce they would be permanent.

That meant foreign correspondents were allowed to travel where they wished without prior permission and interview whoever wanted to speak to them.

But now the authorities are demanding that foreign reporters register in advance to go to the quake-hit areas.

Why is China changing the rules all of a sudden? What is it so afraid of?

The country has a tendency to move the goal posts -- constantly.

If it wants to be a responsible world power, it has to be consistent in its policies not only on paper but in implementation.

While giving access to foreign reporters is a small policy compared to other big issues like the economy and unemployment, backtracking on the rules becomes the story and perpetuates the belligerence of the government in trying to avoid the truth.

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