Chinese journalists suspended for reporting train disaster

Evidence of the crash was buried and newspapers were told to restrict reports to officially sanctioned or good news

Beijing

Two leading journalists have been suspended in China after their candid coverage of a train crash amid anger at the government for trying to muzzle critics of the country's vaunted high-speed rail project.

One of the journalists was reportedly suspended for his reports on the crash on 23 July, when a high-speed train ploughed into the back of a stationary one, killing at least 40 and injuring more than 190. He had questioned whether China was putting too much emphasis on technological advance at the expense of safety.

The government has faced a wave of criticism over what caused the crash, and the delay by the country's leaders in visiting the scene of the crash at the eastern city of Wenzhou.

Stung by the backlash, the government yesterday urged more openness in reporting disasters. A notice in the Communist Party's official organ, the People's Daily, and other outlets, said: "Grasp the need to openly and objectively release information about developments, government efforts, measures to protect the public and the results of investigations concerning major incidents and issues of major public concern," the policy paper said.

It came just days after crash evidence was buried and newspapers were instructed to restrict coverage to officially sanctioned or good news after premier Wen Jiabao finally visited the site.

Wang Qinglei, a producer on China Central Television's (CCTV) leading news show, 24 Hours, was reportedly suspended for his reports three days after the crash when he asked questions about the causes. "What can help China to form real 'stability', maybe we should create conditions to let all citizens and government officials speak the truth," Mr Wang wrote on the Weibo social network on 1 August. "Those always blocking or restricting can only bring out a superficial peace, but hide a bigger danger behind it. The voice of truth is the quality our country needs as it grows and matures."

Another CCTV journalist, Chai Jing, from China's top investigative show, News Probe, appears to have been suspended too, and was getting widespread support on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Her own Weibo site was blocked, and any articles relating to her fate have been deleted from her site and other online forums.

"Information authorities must realise that a tide has turned in China when so many news outlets join forces to report accurately – this kind of punishment solves nothing and strengthens the mistrust of the government's handling of emergencies and disasters," said Bob Dietz, Asia programme co-ordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In recent years the government has become more open about allowing coverage of disasters. Many Chinese people, for example, never heard of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, believed to be the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century.

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