China eases disaster reporting law

Legislation intended to prevent local government cover-ups over disasters.

    Cases such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 have sparked calls for new reporting laws [GALLO/GETTY]

    The original draft tabled last June had proposed fines of up to $13,000. The bill is going through second reading in China's legislature.
     
    The draft law defined emergencies as industrial accidents, natural disasters, and health and public security crises, the Xinhua news agency said.
     
    Although the revised version no longer refers to the media or fines, it can still warn or punish those found to have intentionally spread false information.
     
    The about-turn came after some legislators raised the possibility of local governments abusing the law to cover-up accidents caused by poor safety measures, such as in the mining industry.
     
    "Some lawmakers questioned the appropriateness of imposing fines on those who fabricate or spread false information about emergencies," Wang Maolin, vice director of the legislature's law committee, was quoted as saying.
     
    Retaliation
     
    Local-level Chinese officials are often extremely wary about releasing details of disasters and emergency situations for fear of giving a bad impression or retaliation from higher levels.
     
    In 2003, authorities denied for months an outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which emerged in southern China and spread quickly to many countries.
     
    The outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and killed over 800, including nearly 350 in China.
     
    The measures outlining the do's and don't's in responding to emergencies highlights the uncomfortable relationship between the communist government and the media.
     
    All licensed media outlets on the mainland are state-controlled and authorities regularly crack down on reporters who exceed unwritten limits for openness and criticism.
     
    Beginning January 1, China relaxed decades-old restrictions on foreign reporters in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
     
    But journalists continue to be harassed or detained by local authorities.
     
    Press freedom groups say China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 32 behind bars, most on charges of violating vague subversion or security laws.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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