By David Bandurski — In veteran journalist Chang Ping‘s latest piece, featured in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, the value of freedom of speech once again becomes personal, a backward push against the recent nationalistic wave in China that has pitted “patriotism” against “universal values” regarded as “Western” and traitorous. Chang, who apparently has family in Chengdu, writes of yesterday’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan: “Before now, arguing from the standpoint of press theory, I’ve repeatedly urged the government to consider the public’s demand for information . . . Today, as someone directly involved, I feel much more deeply the sense of anxiety and suspense.”

Chang specifically targets the recent uptick across China in police arrests of citizens, in many cases Web users, who disseminate so-called “false information” about public emergencies and other issues.

The piece also refers to a number of indications that early clues to possible geological activity were ignored, including the disturbing suggestion surfacing in chatrooms that some geologists anticipated a major geological event but were told to keep a lid on their views over fears of widespread panic. [UPDATE: The “Black and White Cat” blog has a good post on debunking of the “geologist” post. Chang Ping’s point about police arrests taken, we have to remember much of the available information may be wrong, or even malicious. The debunking process itself arguably demonstrates Chang’s point that the “rumors will cease of their own” if speech is unhindered].

Chang’s editorial follows in full. [Homepage image: Screenshot of charitable earthquake campaign “Our Hearts Are Together” featured on today’s news page at Sina.com].

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As We Face Powerful Quakes, Please Give Consideration to the Information Needs of the People
By Chang Ping (长平)

At noon on May 12 a telephone from a friend delivered the terrible news: it’s an earthquake, and everyone has run out onto the streets! Having no means or thought of confirming the news, I turned and told my colleagues. Not long after, the news began to come out through MSN, mobile instant messages and telephone calls. Everyone was exchanging words and information. Try as I might, I could not reach my relatives in Sichuan by phone, and I was anxious. In those moments my greatest hope, aside from reaching them directly, was to get my hands on whatever information I could.

While Xinhua News Agency rapidly released information confirming that an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale had rocked Wenchuan in Sichuan Province (四川汶川) resulting in major injury and loss, this was not enough to satisfy people — they needed to know more. As the phone lines failed to ring through, various rumors multiplied. I even sent various information to friends and colleagues hoping for feedback from their end. As a professional journalist, I understood that the vast majority of this information could not possibly be verified, that the police regarded it as the transmission of rumors (传播谣言) punishable by criminal detention. But as someone with relatives in the area affected by the earthquake, I couldn’t stop myself from seeking whatever information I could through these means. And I know I’m not the only person in China at the moment who is unsettled.

As night arrived, the information available on the Internet grew. A Web posting from two days earlier said: “I’ve just seen earthquake clouds, and I don’t know where a 6.0 or above earthquake is going to appear today or tomorrow.” Another respondent who claimed to be a geologist came out and said that they had earlier predicted an event, but that they were not permitted to release [information] for fears of creating panic. Yet another person [Web user] dug out earlier news that a mass migration of butterflies had been spotted in the city of Mianzhu (绵竹), a clear sign . . . Of course, most of the information concerned the disaster-struck area and rumors of the number of dead. This information was clearly unreliable, and it was difficult to tell what was true or false. Together they all spoke to a single problem, and that is the fierce appetite for information people have when faced with a public event (公共事件).

Before now, arguing from the standpoint of press theory, I’ve repeatedly urged the government to consider the public’s demand for information. I’ve demanded openness of government information (政府信息公开), and freedom for the media to report (媒体采访自由). Today, as someone directly involved, I feel much more deeply the sense of anxiety and suspense. I don’t think it will cross people’s minds to falsify and transmit information — they simply want to know more. If we look at this as part of a normal process, we see that while there may be a few people deliberately blowing things out of proportion, but most information is coming from people who have a desire to know the truth. Everyone is seeking out their relatives and loved ones. Moreover, those who receive information, with a normal degree of intelligence, can determine what is probably false among the wealth of information available . . .

I confess that I’m worrying about my relatives on the one hand and the police on the other. Because I know, given the reasoning behind previous police arrests, that they can take me in and hold me for several days on charges of dissemination rumors (传播谣言). It was just in the last couple of days that Chengdu police arrested several citizens protesting the Pengzhou Petrochemical Project on the grounds that they were inventing lies (编造), holding demonstrations (散布) and playing up various rumors (炒作各种谣言). On the same grounds, police in Shandong arrested a Web user who disseminated information about the number of people who died in the April 28 train disaster.

How much harm did these people actually cause? Like me right now, they simply wanted more people to know the truth. They care about their own homes, just as I care for my own relatives.

Therefore, for those who have transmitted information in the midst of this earthquake, including myself and my friends and the various strangers who have provided me with information, if it cannot be convincingly shown that their actions had malicious intent and severe social consequences (造成严重的社会后果), even if they incorrectly relay an erroneous message, we ask that you show understanding. Besides, if the truth is disclosed in a timely manner, then the rumors will cease of their own.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 13, 2008, 10:27am HK]