Access denied to non-state media at Chinese ferry sinking tragedy

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the suppression of the press following the capsizing of the Oriental Star cruise on the Yangtze River on June 1 where only state media were given authorisation to report. The IFJ said attempts to block non-state media outlets from reporting the incident was a clear breach of the public’s right to know.

On June 1, 456 passengers were on board the Oriental Star cruise when it sank, allegedly due to poor weather conditions on the Yangtze River, Jianli, in Hubei Province. According to Xinhua, 6000 personnel were sent to rescue trapped passengers. Only 14 people were rescued, at least 20 people were announced dead and the remaining passengers are understood to be still missing. 

It is alleged that the cruise ferry capsized due to a sudden cyclone and it was reported that the ferry captain was unable to send out a distress signal fast enough. However, some reports have indicated that mistakes made by the captain could have been a factor in the sinking.

Based on Mainland media sources, early on the June 2, the Central Propaganda Department ordered all media to refrain from posting reporters to the scene of the accident. Reporters already at the scene were ordered to leave immediately. It was also said that any coverage relating to the incident must only use information released by state controlled media outlets. Yet Xinhua and China Central Television, both state-owned media outlets, were allowed to remain.

A journalist at the scene told the IFJ: “We were not allowed to enter into the area though it is still far away from the scene. You can see many police or military agents everywhere. All the major roads were blocked.”

Journalists were also blocked by police when attempting to report on the experience of victims’ family members, who were protesting in Shanghai against the lack of information released by the Shanghai government regarding their loved ones.

According to Wenwei newspaper, a Hong Kong based but Chinese controlled media outlet, the Chinese authorities allowed more than 40 journalists from around 30 International media outlets to board the ship at the scene on June 3. However it did not mention why some media were chosen and others excluded.

IFJ has said: “It is absurd that that a disaster of such significant public concern would only authorise reporting from state owned media outlets, depriving the rights of all other media. 

According to article 10 of Emergency Response Law, any information regarding an emergency should be made available to the public in a timely manner by the relevant people’s government. 

The IFJ urges Premier Li Keqiang immediately to lift up the order and allow all media to free access to report the sunken cruise and the surrounding events including family protests on their right to information.