China Closes Beijing Newspaper in Media Crackdown
Officials Ban Reporting on Sensitive Subjects, Including Province's Handling of SARS, Journalists Say

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 20, 2003; Page A19


BEIJING, June 19 -- The Chinese government, apparently fearing the kind of aggressive reporting that took place during the SARS epidemic and other recent scandals, has launched a media crackdown, closing one newspaper and ordering all publications to stop reporting on sensitive topics, journalists said today.

The crackdown ends a period of relative openness for the tightly controlled news media, journalists and editors said. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have promoted limited political and social changes since they took office in March, while also signaling that they intend to maintain controls on public dissent and freedoms.

There is some doubt about exactly how successful the news crackdown will be. Reporters and editors say they are increasingly eager to challenge or bend government rules, and information also is available across the country on unofficial Internet sites beyond government control.

The government has shut down Beijing New Times, a small newspaper run by the Worker's Daily Group, one of the country's biggest newspaper publishing companies, sources at the newspaper said. Beijing New Times was shut two weeks ago after it published a list of the seven "most nauseating things" in China, a cutting parody of the Communist system. The article criticized the rubber-stamp National People's Congress and another consultative body called the Chinese People's Consultative Conference, whose members, the report said, "are so old they've forgotten their names."

The editorial staff of Beijing New Times has been fired, sources at the newspaper said.

Editors and journalists at several other publications in Beijing and elsewhere said the Ministry of Propaganda had directed them in recent days to stop reporting independently on several specific subjects.

The newspapers were forbidden to write stories critical of the Guangdong provincial government's handling of the initial outbreak of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, reporters said.

Propaganda officials also banned further reporting on Jiang Yanyong, a whistle-blowing doctor who accused the government of lying about the SARS outbreak, editors said. Jiang, 72, has been the subject of profiles and interviews since he wrote an open letter to the government accusing it of covering up of the epidemic.

Although Jiang has not been arrested, he is having difficulty obtaining permission from his employer, No. 301 Hospital of the People's Liberation Army, to travel abroad to visit his daughter in the United States, sources said.

The Propaganda Ministry also banned reporting on Sun Zhigang, a graphic designer who died in police custody in March. Sun's death, first reported by the Southern Metropolitan News in the southern city of Guangzhou, touched off criticism about police brutality. Sun was detained by police for not carrying an identification card as required under a vagrancy law that was struck down Wednesday by the State Council, China's cabinet.

Government critics have said Sun's death led to the government decision to abolish the law, which gave police broad detention powers.

"So we have the new government responding to a report in the media and at the same time cracking down on the media," a senior Chinese editor said.

Reporting also is not allowed on two Chinese businessmen, Zhou Zhengyi and Yang Bin, editors said. Zhou was detained last month in connection with a $270 million loan he received from the Bank of China in Hong Kong. Zhou's case is sensitive because he conducted real estate business in Shanghai and is believed to have maintained close relations with the city's senior politicians.

Yang, who was born in China but holds North Korean and Dutch citizenship, was arrested earlier this year in a tax investigation. Yang's case has a political dimension because he has been designated by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to run an experimental economic development zone in North Korea.

Editors and journalists said the Propaganda Ministry censured the newspaper Economic Observer for criticizing Zhang Wenkang, a former health minister who lost his job after covering up the SARS epidemic, and Gao Qiang, a deputy minister of health who defended Zhang's performance.

Also censured was a newsmagazine, Sanlian Life Weekly, for publishing a picture of Jiang, the doctor, on its cover with the headline: "Jiang Yanyong: The interests of the people are more important than anything."



2003 The Washington Post Company




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