By David Bandurski — Ever since the curtain closed on the Beijing Olympics, China has been plagued with accidents and ugly tragedies, from poisoned milk to coal mine disasters. In all of these incidents, the questions of information suppression and the role of the media have loomed large.

On the one hand, party leaders pledge to deal resolutely with these specific incidents and their causes; on the other they fail to address a political culture of information control that fuels the cover-up of truths at the expense of ordinary Chinese.

In yet another strong editorial, this one for Shanghai’s Oriental Daily, which seems to be ramping up the strength of its editorial page, columnist Chang Ping (长平) argues that “going to the heart of the problem” in cases like the Lifan mudslide and the milk powder scandal requires more attention to the question of media freedom.

Chang Ping points out that China’s top leaders pledged in 2007 to deal with what they called “a string of cover-ups of major mining accidents,” saying these were acts that “destroyed a harmonious society.” But can the leadership — to put a harder edge on a question implicit in Chang’s editorial — live up to these promises as they tolerate and encourage the “harmonization” of “negative news“? [More thoughts in Chinese on “negative news” here].

Another key point in Chang’s editorial is to see hope and inspiration for dispirited journalists in the figure of Sun Chunlong (孙春龙), the Oriental Outlook reporter who eventually broke the silence of the Lifan mudslide, and who later wrote on his personal weblog: “Just this one time, I didn’t give up.”

Key portions of Chang Ping’s editorial follow:

Why is the truth about Lifan still being suppressed?
By Chang Ping (长平)

As a media compatriot, I swell with pride when I think of Oriental Outlook reporter Sun Chunlong (孙春龙). After the August 1 landslide in Lifan, when the local government designated the accident a natural disaster, suppressed reporting of the number of dead and prevented investigations by journalists, Sun Chunlong managed to break through the restrictions and discover the truth. He wrote a report, but the report was deleted from the website where it first appeared. He posted on his personal weblog a letter to Shanxi’s acting governor informing him about the case, but this letter was blocked. Despite being blocked, the letter managed to attract the attention of central party leaders, and the State Council then organized an investigation team. That team has already confirmed that after the accident occured it was covered up . . .

But I cannot be too overjoyed, because I know that this is just an isolated example, and even this precious isolated example stands on shaky ground. On October 10 the Xi’an Evening Post reported the whole process of how Sun Chunlong revealed the truth about the cover up. As I was poring over the sequence of events with a friend I made a terrible discovery. At least five websites, including Netease and Sina, deleted the report on their sites. When Southern Metropolis Daily reported this news the headline was, “News is deleted and blogs deleted too.” Apparently, this follow-up report should have been headlined, “News deleted, blogs deleted and news deleted again ….”

Behind these ellipses you could keep adding and adding, and journalists would find nothing at all unusual about this. Suppression of news and deleting of articles, these are things the people detest but which have been permanent fixtures. Since I entered the journalism profession more than ten years ago, I have seen many colleagues advance wave upon wave in pursuit of the truth. One of my colleagues would approach the numbers provided by local governments with extreme skepticism every time a major accident happened. He would go personally and count the bodies one by one, and perhaps in every case would find that the full extent of the tragedy had been covered up. We branded him with a label full of black humor, calling him the “corpse-counting reporter.” I still remember that each time he heard this moniker he would nod his head and smile with a hint of bitterness.

I remember that last year the State Administration of Work Safety launched a move against the cover up of accidents. Xinhua News Agency put out a slew of articles, attesting to the fact that “lately a number of cover-ups of major mining accidents have occurred nationwide, with baneful influence.” The covering up [of accidents] was even elevated to an act destroying a harmonious society, and strict penalties were promised, to the extent of using fierce language like, “In cases in particular where those responsible for the accident orchestrated the cover-up and fled, we will search to the ends of the earth to find them and bring them to justice.” But judging from news this year, from the Sanlu milk powder scandal to the Shanxi mudslide, things are being covered up and deleted as ever.

If we want to change this shameful situation, after each case of cover-up or deletion we need not only to ensure thorough investigation and handling of the accident itself, but we must also pursue those responsible for covering up and deleting information. Actually, journalists are most vexed not by the difficulties of investigating cases so much as the suppression of reports already written and the removal of reports that are published. According to Sun Chunlong, the relatives of the accident victims [in the Lifan landslide] were pained with one question: so many reporters had come and seen the truth for themselves, so why had they not reported it? Will you actually report it? When I worked as a reporter I often came across this situation myself. These good and powerless people, as their eyes go from longing to doubt to despair, deal a death blow to the professional dignity of every reporter . . .

Judging from the reports of Sun Chunlong and others . . . [the local government in Lifan] put a stop to the search [for survivors] in order to preserve lies about the number of dead, so that countless families could not see their loved ones alive or dead. If family members expressed their own views, they were detained, locked up, whipped, and one was even beaten with a truncheon. They mobilized police, not for rescue efforts but to deal with and chaperone journalists. Further, how is it that they were able still to get several websites to delete the news? Why, when Wen Jiabao had issued his official instructions, did deletion [of the news] continue without restraint?

As things now stand, we can anticipate a full investigation of the nature of the accident itself. As for investigating the whole process of the cover-up, I don’t dare harbor any hopes. But I do know that this goes to the heart of the problem.

Sun Chunlong confesses on his blog that his way of handling things has “also become very slick”: “What you can change, change. What you can’t change, conform to. What you can’t conform to, tolerate. When you can no longer tolerate it, give up.” I’m afraid these are principles many journalists [in China] live by. Otherwise, you would have no way of continuing to push through. But the part [in Sun’s words] that invites admiration follows: “Just this one time, I didn’t give up.” And what might perhaps make others envious is the fact that on his first time not giving up he got results. I believe his actions give his fellow journalists hope. Reports about what really happened at Lifan are still being removed, but the mess can never be entirely cleaned up. The suppression of reports will continue, but the name Sun Chunlong cannot be wiped out. Cover-ups will continue, but there will be more and more blogs. Those of us in the media should use these words, “I didn’t give up,” to change our own stars so that we too are not wiped out.

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 14, 2008, 1:37am HK]