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China 31 August 2007

Congress passes law censoring disaster coverage

Reporters Without Borders condemns yesterday’s approval by the National People’s Congress of a law which, according to the official news agency Xinhua, “bans the fabrication and spread of false information on accidents and disasters and requires the government to provide accurate and timely information.” Called the Emergency Response Law, it will take effect on 1 November.

“Adopting legislation on the management of public emergencies may be a good thing, but turning it into a tool for reinforcing censorship is unacceptable,” the press freedom organisation said. “All the Chinese media are already controlled by the Publicity Department, and this law in practice deprives them of the ability to provide an alert service in situations of crisis.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “The Chinese authorities appear not to have drawn the lessons from the SARS crisis, in which lives could have been saved if they had not imposed a news blackout.”

The law’s initial draft included provision for fines of between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan on news media that published unauthorised reports about emergencies. This provision was withdrawn, but the final version nonetheless stipulates that news media could lose their licence if they put out false information on accidents and disasters.

In practice, the media will be limited to reproducing Xinhua’s despatches on “industrial accidents, natural disasters, health and public security hazards” and will be unable to conduct their own investigations. A Xin Kuaibao (New Express) columnist last year argued that “there will be no way of verifying whether the information coming from the authorities is true and accurate” and that the law could “become a way for corrupt officials to hide their dishonesty.”

Widely criticised in the local press, the law’s adoption was facilitated by last month’s scandal about a fabricated TV report on a bakery that allegedly put shredded cardboard into its dumplings.

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