Journalist David Fang and photographer Mark Ralston of the South China Morning Post, a daily published in Hong Kong, were questioned for several hours on 11 February 2004 when they were working on a report on avian flu on a farm in Baitangkou, near Tianjin (south east of the country).
Officials and police questioned the journalists about their presence in the region in contravention of restrictions imposed on journalists in the areas hit by the epidemic.
Zhong Yangsheng, deputy governor of southern Guangdong province on 8 February threatened the media, particularly in Hong Kong, with legal action if they continued to publish "irresponsible articles" on avian flu. He also said that chicken in the Chaoan region had been dying of poisoning or accidents and not as a result of the epidemic.
Officials from the Publicity Department (formerly the Propaganda Department) confirmed on 6 February that the dailies the Yangtze Evening News and the Nanjing Daily were under official investigation after publishing articles on the sudden death of thousands of migratory birds in the birthplace of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. The birds fell from the sky at Taizhou, in the east of China. "This type of article does not contribute to stability," a top official, quoted by Reuters said.
Police detained a France 2 TV crew for two hours in a Beijing suburb on 4 February because they were filming poultry being vaccinated and had no authorisation. They were interrogated for the entire two hours and were forced to sign a statement recognising they had carried out a "clandestine shoot."
The propaganda department in the southern province of Guangdong on 30 January ordered Chinese journalists not to "exaggerate or distort" the news about bird flu. The media are supposed to take their lead from the news provided by the official press agency Xinhua.
The authorities have denied reports in the British daily The Times about human victims from the bird flu epidemic in some 10 Chinese provinces. The Chinese media continue to claim that the authorities have the situation under control.
Foreign press barred from provinces hit by bird flu
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today called on the World Health Organisation to press the Chinese authorities to lift a ban on visits to the southern regions hit by bird flu, which has been imposed on most of the foreign correspondents based in Beijing.
After preventing foreign journalists from freely covering the SARS epidemic, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province, the Chinese authorities are again showing a lack of transparency in their handling of a health problem, the organisation said, calling for foreign correspondents to be allowed to report freely from the provinces affected by bird flu.
The ban has been imposed by the foreign affairs ministry and the authorities in the southern provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Guangxi.
As soon as the first cases appeared in these provinces at the end of January 2004, the authorities refused to give travel authorisation to most of foreign press in Beijing, including the European TV corporations ARD, France 2 and BBC. Officials told journalists that a press conference would be held "in a few days."
Meanwhile, dozens of journalists with China’s governmental press have been invited to these provinces to confirm that "the authorities and peasants have proceeded with the elimination and cleanup of chicken-farming." The propaganda department has also called on the editors of the leading Chinese news media to announce that the epidemic is under control.
In recent years, Reporters Without Borders has registered dozens of cases of arrests and censorship of foreign journalists when they tried to investigate public health problems such as AIDS and SARS in China.