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China 28 January 2005

News black-out on death of former top leader Zhao Ziyang

Reporters Without Borders today deplored continuing efforts by China’s ruling Communist Party to clamp down on all news about former prime minister and party leader Zhao Ziyang on the eve of his funeral tomorrow and called on the international community to press the regime to stop its "ruthless censorship" aimed at "the father of China’s economic and political reforms."

Zhao’s name does not appear on Internet discussion forums and search engines accessible inside China. Foreign media have been banned from the funeral.

"The regime has rarely targeted a single news topic so energetically since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre," the press freedom organisation said, "and once again foreign journalists have been prevented from covering an event that bothers the authorities."

The death on 17 January of Zhao, who was prime minister from 1980 to 1987 and also secretary-general of the Communist Party, was announced in a brief 60-word item by the official news agency Xinhua. His party post was not mentioned and no picture of him was supplied.

The party set up a committee to manage with the death of the man accused of supporting the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrators and who, after being dismissed for doing so, lived the rest of his life under house arrest and banned from talking to the media.

The regime’s propaganda department forbade radio and TV stations to mention him and newspapers were only allowed to print (but not as a major item) the Xinhua dispatch headed simply "Comrade Zhao Ziyang is dead."

Foreign satellite TV stations, including CNN, Bloomberg and BBC World Service, were censored as soon as they mentioned his death.

The funeral, scheduled for 29 January at Babaoshan cemetery (west of Beijing) is being held under tight security. Party officials have been banned from attending and dozens of people have been put under house arrest to stop them going. They include Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy activist, and Yu Shicun, former editor of the magazine Zhanlue Yu Guanli (Strategy and Management), which was banned last September.

At least 100 people have already been arrested or beaten for trying to pay their respects to Zhao, notably by wearing a white flower. The foreign media was prevented from filming in front of his Beijing home, where hundreds of people gathered. A BBC World Service reporter was turned away from the entrance.

Foreign media have been banned from covering the funeral. A foreign ministry spokesman said at the ministry’s daily press conference on 27 January that no arrangements had been made for media coverage. Asked how journalists would be treated if they tried to attend, he replied: "Why do you want to go to Babaoshan?"

In a bid to avoid a big media presence at the funeral, the ministry is organising a press conference at exactly the same time at Beijing airport to mark the first direct flight between China and Taiwan.

The regime has also managed to very effectively control the news about Zhao on the Internet from inside China. His death set off a torrent of messages to online forums but the messages were quickly deleted and very strict orders given to those running the forums. No reaction to the death has since appeared online except for the brief official announcements. Even the usually lively Beijing University forum has not featured any discussion about him.

The Chinese human rights website Cicus (www.cicus.org) said the party’s propaganda department ordered the country’s major Internet portals (Sina, Sohu and NetEase) to delete all mention of Zhao as soon as he died.

Comment also quickly appeared on various blogs, especially cnblog.org (see its archives for some remaining messages about Zhao). But the China Herald (www.chinaherald.net), a blog about the growth of new technology in China, said police soon called the blogs’ ISPs to order them to ban all material about him.

Zhao’s name also cannot be found by Internet users inside China on the Chinese search engine Baidu, which Google recently invested in, or on the Chinese version of Yahoo!, which has agreed to censor itself under pressure from the regime.




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