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China tightens media gag to manage virus-handling image

Journalists go missing as China steps up monitoring of people and of media reporting coronavirus infection

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

Updated: February 17, 2020 10:20 AM GMT
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China tightens media gag to manage virus-handling image

A doctor looks at an image as he checks a patient who is infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Feb. 16. (Photo: STR/AFP)

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Communist China has widened its gagging methods and threats against free speech in a desperate effort to build its image after deaths from the coronavirus spiked, baffling expert predictions.

The regime under the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) has put curbs on free discussion of the epidemic on the media, including social media platforms, as deaths increased to 1,770 with more than 70,000 confirmed infections on the mainland.

The spike in deaths came after experts expected the epidemic to begin to subside, raising questions about how China identified, tested, managed and reported about the infected people.

In an effort to manage the adverse reporting and discussions about the administration’s handling of the virus epidemic, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has tightened restrictions on the media.

Internet platforms and local authorities need to “create a good cyberspace environment to win the battle against the epidemic,” the CAC said in a statement.

The party has been controlling public opinion by screening and suspending social media posts and detaining, admonishing and warning “rumor mongers” since the coronavirus, now called COVID-19, broke out in December in Wuhan city, some 1,000 kilometers from capital Beijing.

The CAC had earlier sought an explanation from Baidu, China’s dominant online search service, for its users sharing what it described as "illegal information."

The watchdog said it had also suspended a social app, Pipi Gaoxiao, for “posting harmful videos and spreading fear and panic” about the outbreak. A few bloggers were also grilled for posting “fake news.”

Users of WeChat, called Weixin in mainland China where it has more than one billion users, have alleged that personal accounts have been shut down in recent days.

A report by Chinese business journal Caijing on undocumented epidemic cases in Wuhan was blocked from social media platforms.

A notice circulated by the CAC asked audio and video platforms to control “harmful information and rumor” related to the Wuhan virus. It asked them to follow official media like Xinhua and People’s Daily, and “not to push any negative story.”

Journalists disappear

Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, went missing after he posted videos about the situation at several hospitals with a call to hand "the power back to the people."

He disappeared after he was reportedly arrested on Feb. 9, his friends and relatives say. He became the second journalist missing after citizen journalist Chen Qiushi disappeared on Feb. 7 after he tweeted about seeing dead bodies.

Bin posted videos from a hospital in Wuhan and criticized the government for not responding to the epidemic, which he said was the main cause of spiraling deaths.

"Fang Bin disappeared because he reached the bottom of the government. There is no freedom of speech and press in the country," a mainland journalist told UCA News while requesting anonymity.

"The authorities will not allow the media and individuals to express opinions about any major incident, especially to speak the truth about it. The government will only allow its version to be heard through the official standard. Bin did not follow the practice, which led to his arrest." 

In December, when the epidemic broke out in Wuhan, Dr. Li Wenliang, who released information about the virus, was among eight people arrested for
"rumor mongering." He later died of infection.

Bin's disappearance is a "common punishment" for "non-obedient" people. It primarily helps silence the person, then it serves as a warning to others not to take the same path, the mainland journalist said.

Checking on people

As part of the media clampdown, the government has adopted the highest level of public opinion control. It has stopped public figures from speaking out and health workers from sharing information.

Father Peter from Zhangjiakou told UCA News that on Jan. 28 the local government warned him to remain silent. “Any talk about the epidemic and religion is prohibited, they told me,” he said. “They have been keeping a tab on my activities.” 

Amei, a doctor based in Hubei province, said her hospital asked doctors not to make any remarks about the outbreak on the internet or disclose any relevant files or pictures. They were warned of severe repercussions for violations.

Many suspect that government figures about the dead and infected are inaccurate because not all cases are reported, and the state makes no effort to record or report them.

The physician said the official version was completely inconsistent with the actual situation, making it difficult for her to comply with the warning.

“The protective measures are not up to standard, but the authorities also want medical staff to rush forward. What would happen to their lives? We are their life-saving straw,” she said.

Philip, a Christian under state surveillance, said he had received warnings from authorities. “The authorities' monitoring methods aim to make you cooperate with them,” he said.

He said the curb on free speech “had kept away the real picture of the epidemic. People are still immersed in what the party projects. That’s the most terrible thing.”

A party official who refused to be named said monitoring aims to curb “hostile public opinion.”

“The Chinese Communist Party is not afraid of the epidemic. Rather, what it fears most is the direction of public opinion during the epidemic. They are worried this could lead rebellion against the regime,” he said.

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