China Bans Reporting on Bridge Collapse

Communist authorities have banned most state media from reporting on the deadly collapse of a bridge in southern China, with local officials punching and chasing reporters from the scene, reporters said Friday.

The harassment and the reporting ban, issued by the Central Propaganda Department, came Thursday while reporters swarmed the tourist town of Fenghuang to report on Monday's accident.

Unidentified locals roughed up a group of five newspaper and magazine reporters as they interviewed family members of those killed, according to a photographer and a reporter whose colleague was among those roughed up.

The collapse of the bridge, which was under construction, left at least 47 people dead, making it one of the worst building accidents in China in recent years.

On Friday, rescue crews blasted massive stone and concrete columns to clear the way for a deeper search of the rubble. They uncovered six more bodies and said it unlikely any survivors would be found, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

The rough treatment given the media stands at odds with the responsible, concerned image China's Communist Party leadership has tried to convey publicly in the wake of the accident and the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Officials from President Hu Jintao on down have promised a thorough investigation into the collapse and punishment for any wrongdoing.

But the accident has raised troubling questions about shoddy building and possible corruption between the officials and contractors, and by trying to control reporting on the disaster, Beijing is fueling those suspicions.

"The local government does not want the media to uncover the collapse," said Li Datong, a veteran newspaperman forced from a top editing job two years ago for running reports that angered authorities. Li said he was told about the harassment in Fenghuang by reporters involved.

A duty officer in the Fenghuang police department, Liu Xiajun, said reporters had made an emergency call reporting the harassment Thursday, but he said he could not elaborate.

An official in the Propaganda Department's information office who declined to give his name said he was "not clear" about the ban and declined further comment.

While all media in China is state controlled, some outlets have engaged in lively, aggressive reporting in recent years, taking advantage of greater social freedoms that have accompanied economic growth and seeking higher profits. Accounts of reporters being beaten by local thugs have increased, with one reporter even being beaten to death early this year.

After the Propaganda Department issued the ban, editors soon phoned their crews in Fenghuang, ordering them to clear out. Editors "told them to disappear within 10 minutes from Fenghuang," the photographer who was having dinner with a group of reporters Thursday night wrote in an e-mail.

The photographer and the reporter asked that they and their media not be identified for fear of reprisals by the department, China's top media censor.

Under the ban, state media were ordered not to send reporters to Fenghuang or independently gather the news but to rely solely on reports by the government's Xinhua, according to the reporter.

Among the reporters roughed up Thursday was one from a Xinhua-owned magazine, Liaowang Oriental Weekly, along with colleagues from People's Daily, China Youth Daily, Southern Metropolis Daily and the Economic Observer newspaper, the reporter said.

"My colleague was kicked when he tried to stop local officials from beating Wang Weijian from the People's Daily," the reporter said in a telephone interview. He said the officials accused the group of conducting "unauthorized interviews."

Wang declined to comment. In a further sign of how the government was trying to control reporting from Fenghuang, an account of the reporters' harassment posted on a popular Internet forum Friday morning was removed several hours later, the reporter said.