Covering China’s Uncensored Quake May 15, 2008Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Essays, Journalism, News, Social Media, Trends, Web Video.
In the end, it took a national tragedy of horrific proportions for a country with a history of contempt for free speech online to loosen its grip – but only a bit, and perhaps in a mere flirtation with unfettered information gathering.
The Web and mainstream media are abuzz with news and commentary of Monday’s earthquake in China. Amid the outpouring of grief and anger, a one-party state long wary of citizens’ access to sensitive information is letting a lot more reporting out, and with uncommon candor.
To be sure, scenes of devastation and suffering are staple media fare in the coverage of catastrophes. I’ve seen my share in the wires and feeds from international news organizations such as Reuters, AP, IPTV, APTN.
But the news of this quake disseminated by journalists and witnesses in China is remarkable because images and information are being let out uncensored from a country long suspicious of citizens and foreigners conspiring to undermine the state.
Thanks to lessons of the past, China’s media is living up to global standards for once – and about time. Lest we think this is a defining moment, remember that the men in Beijing are trying to balance hardline impulses with a nimbler grip on information as they limber for the Olympics.
This country with a history of covering up natural calamities and bungling responses is set to stage the Olympics in the full glare of international media. A media with third-world repute is trying to live up to first-world expectations. In experimenting with a new openness, a recent law requires public officials to provide information to the news media during natural disasters.
China knows the world is watching its behavior in a humanitarian crisis. Certainly it wants to avert the international scorn that the junta in Myanmar earned for their xenophobic response to the cyclone in Irrawaddy Delta.
As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. Certainly, you can’t keep the digital arena sterile when a disaster of such magnitude hits home. You can’t muzzle netizens when you lead the world for mobile phone and Internet users.
You can’t dam the flood of searing images from being uploaded to the Web with mobile phones and digital cameras wielded by tens of millions of citizens. You can’t silence the blogs, the chatter and the Twitter on the Web. You can’t cover up. You can’t hide.
The Great Firewall that has kept the Chinese digital realm sanitized cracked this week, yielding to the murderous temblor that united the country in grief and mourning. Chinese mainstream media have found greater freedoms to show graphic images of devastation without the sanitizing that censors demand. Foreign media are getting unrestricted access.
Images of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao directing disaster relief officials and comforting survivors dominate the airwaves. This openness appears to be paying off. Websites and chatrooms are full of praise for the rescue response.
Witnesses to the devastation have been flooding the Web with homemade videos, filling chat rooms and Twittering tidbits of information from their mobile phones at a furious pace. Popular video-sharing site, tudou.com, now has about 1000 clips related to the quake, including appeals to locate relatives.
With uncharacteristic vigor, party organ Xinhua News Agency has stepped up to plate, offering a stream of updates on the rescue operation. Here’s a roundup of other compelling quake-related acts of journalism from China and elsewhere on the Web:
Global Voices Online: Roundup of blogging and local nonprofessional reporting on the quake.
QQ.com: Chinese video-sharing service has a special page aggregating contributed videos.
Yupoo: Gallery of earthquake photos from a major Chinese photo-sharing site.
CNN iReport: Aggregator page of all contributed content posted about the quake.
NowPublic: All submissions tagged “earthquake” on this citizen reporting site.
Shanghaiist: “Metroblogging” site offers several quake-related stories.
Flickr: All photos on this photo-sharing site tagged “China” and “earthquake.”
Tweet Scan: What the Twitterati is talking regarding the China quake.
Chinese Internet Censorship