The evidence is accumulating. The censorship imposed on the Chinese media about the contaminated milk scandal has had disastrous consequences according to Reporters Without Borders. Last July, a journalist working for the investigative weekly Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) gathered reliable information regarding a wave of hospitalizations of new-born babies, with four killed and 53,000 sickened. These illnesses were linked to powered milk made by Chinese dairy company Sanlu. The writer’s editor, however, decided not to publish the story for fear of government reprisal. As a result, China had to wait until after the Olympic Games, until early September, before another news outlet dared to publish this explosive news.

Fu Jianfeng, an editor at Southern Weekend posted a damning indictment on his blog after the scandal became public in September:

Actually, our reporter He Feng had received the information at the end of July that more than 20 babies were hospitalized for kidney stones in Tongji Hospital, Wuhan city, Hubei province as a result of consuming the tainted Sanlu milk powder. But for reasons that everybody knows, we were not able to investigate the case at that time because harmony was needed everywhere. As a news editor, I was deeply concerned because I sensed that this was going to be a huge public health catastrophe. But I could not send any reporters to investigate. Therefore, I harbored a deep sense of guilt and defeat at the time.

How did this happen? How was it that the Chinese government once again put its desire to control the flow of information before its citizens’ health? And how was it that companies, some of which were foreign, were able to keep a scandal of this scale secret for such a long time?

China’s Propaganda Department — a censorship office that answers directly to the Communist Party’s Politburo — circulated a 21-point directive to the Chinese media on the eve of the Beijing Olympics declaring certain subjects off-limits for media coverage. Point 8 was very clear: “All subjects linked to food safety, such as mineral water that causes cancer, are off-limits.” In the face of worldwide distrust of the quality of its products, the Chinese government chose silence.

The Chinese press and blogosphere had to say nothing. The editors of liberal publications such as Southern Weekend know only too well the price for violating decrees issued by Beijing’s censors. Three members of the same media group spent several years in prison after reporting a case of SARS without official permission in 2003. One of them was released this past February.

Repeating Past Mistakes

The tainted milk affair is a tragic repetition of the 2003 mistakes. The SARS epidemic emerged at the start of the winter of 2002 but Chinese authorities covered it up for as long as possible to avoid scaring away foreign investment. When a military doctor revealed that Chinese officials were hiding the SARS epidemic, the government finally allowed the press to begin talking about it; the government swore that it would not repeat the same mistake. If only that had been the case.

The authorities have continuously tried to suppress food and health scandals. In 2004, police banned foreign journalists and bloggers from visiting provinces affected by bird flu. In 2007, authorities tried to censor information about an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in the eastern province of Shandong. Meanwhile, it has always been hard for reporters to visit villages in the center of the country where thousands are dying of cancer or AIDS.

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Chinese stores now label milk as not having melamine

In 2006, the Chinese government virtually inscribed its censorship policies in stone when it promulgated an emergency management law that included heavy fines for news media that published unauthorized information about industrial accidents, natural disasters, public health emergencies or social unrest. The authorities had initially even envisaged prison sentences for violators before backing off.

Chinese officials have not only censored the mainstream press, but also the new media. Internet censorship is ensured by the 11 Commandments of the Internet, which forbids online editors from covering 11 sensitive subjects, including items that:

> endanger national security
> destroy the country’s reputation and benefits
> spread rumors, endanger public order and create social uncertainty
> include illegal information bounded by law and administrative rules

The censors continue to quash reports on the Sanlu tainted milk. A blog post on the scandal by Southern Weekend editor Fu Jianfeng was removed from the Internet and Jianfeng now faces official harassment. It took only two days for Chinese web censors to set up filters to block key words related to the scandal.

Nart Villeneuve, a Psiphon Fellow with the Citizen Lab, an Internet and politics research group at the University of Toronto, has discovered a huge surveillance system in China that monitors and archives Internet text conversations that include politically charged words. His report Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices on China’s TOM-Skype platform spots “milk powder” as one of the restricted phrases.

According to a report from the Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily) translated by ESWN and posted on Global Voices Online, some Chinese Netizens are accusing popular Chinese search engine Baidu of censoring its search results. A Netizen at DoNews pointed out that Baidu yielded more results than Google when searching for “Wenchuan+earthquake” but fewer when searching for “Sanlu+melamine.” This prompted the question: “Why is it that Baidu falls behind Google when Sanlu milk powder is posing a huge risk against public health?” Some bloggers went even further, accusing Sanlu of paying Baidu to block embarrassing search results.

Curtailing Online Coverage

According to a September 29 report by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, authorities have ordered newspapers to relegate scandal coverage to less prominent sections of their publications, highlight the attention paid to the issue by top officials, print only articles written by official state news agency Xinhua, and focus on positive news in general. In addition, blogs and online articles about the issue have been deleted and blocked on popular websites such as Sina, Sohu and NetEase.

Chinese journalists have been expelled from the province where Sanlu has its headquarters. And a group of volunteer lawyers representing the parents of poisoned babies have been subject to official pressure. Meanwhile, New Zealand-based Fonterra, a shareholder in Sanlu, has been slow to provide information to the authorities.

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A dairy farmer watches milk fill a glass container in Shelawusu, China

The government is now moving to help the poisoned babies and identify those responsible for the crisis, and the Chinese president has even called on companies to learn lessons from the scandal. But has the government thought about its own role in all of this? And what about foreign governments? Other countries prefer to restrict Chinese imports rather than clearly tell the Chinese government that its behaviour is irresponsible. And the World Health Organization? Director-General Margaret Chan has done little more than to advise Chinese women to breast-feed more often.

Netizens’ anger and disgust has been strong. Despite the efforts from the web censors, the Chinese blogosphere remains defiant and outspoken about the crisis. Global Voices has collected some reactions from Chinese bloggers:

> One worried that the situation will only worsen if the Chinese government continues to tolerate corporate corruption.

> Another criticized government control over the media: “This is a tragedy for hundreds of thousands families. However, the sad story is being transformed into a happy story — what we hear now are honorable stories about those leaders and people working in the government…There is a proverb: ‘After disasters, a country will be stronger.’ I think this proverb should be understood as ‘When the citizens are suffering from disasters, the Communist Party of China becomes stronger and stronger.’”

Spurred on by increasingly restless bloggers, the Chinese media is trying to fulfill the role that the press everywhere is meant to play: that of questioning and challenging the government. But to do that, they will first have to fight the Propaganda Department, a bastion of conservatism whose sole goal is to muzzle the press and the new media at any price.

Lucie Morillon is the Washington, DC, director of Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization. She covers press freedom issues in the U.S. and abroad and is a spokesperson for the group. She also handles advocacy work with Congress and has appeared on CNN, ABC and has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications. Reporters Without Borders strives to obtain the release of jailed journalists and cyber-dissidents and supports an independent media and the free flow of information online. Morillon is the free-speech correspondent for MediaShift.

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