Melissa Block

A Reporter's Dilemma: The Boundaries Of Speech

I've been thinking today about this contradiction: saying too little and asking too much.

First, saying too little. This morning as we drove by the main square here in Chengdu, we noticed throngs of policemen in dark blue uniforms herding people onto two big tour buses. It was clear that the police were breaking up a protest of some sort - the people on the buses were pressing sheets of paper with printed messages to the bus windows. A police loudspeaker broadcast the message, "These people were breaking the law! Please disperse!" and warned that spectators might get in trouble, too. It turned out the protesters were government workers who were demonstrating over missing pension payments. "At least let us be able to feed ourselves!" they shouted as they were moved onto the buses to be taken away. The gigantic statue of Chairman Mao that stands at one end of Tianfu Square watched over the tumult.

Now, if I'd been in the States, my instinct would have been to jump out of the cab and start rolling tape and asking questions. But here, I'm very mindful that I stand out as a western reporter, and that authorities are keeping tabs on what we do and where we go. As the earthquake anniversary approaches, new rules require that Western media register with local authorities in each area we want to visit, and get a media pass.

I'm not used to muzzling myself or my curiosity as a reporter, and this was an uncomfortable thought: do I write about this protest? will I jeopardize our long-planned stay here if I do? how sensitive an issue is this? how much self-censorship can I stand? Even as I write this blog post, I'm choosing my words very carefully.

Contrast that reticence with my discomfort over whether I'm asking too much. I spent today talking with survivors of the earthquake who were left with traumatic injuries. Nearly one year after the earthquake, they're still in the hospital. In the course of our conversations, I would ask them to describe what happened to them during the earthquake - how long they were trapped under the debris - how they were finally rescued - if others around them died. I tried to do this with sensitivity and care, but I knew I was asking them to relive an unimaginably agonizing chapter of their lives. They answered me with grace and candor.

I know I'll be having many more conversations like this over the next few weeks, and I'll have in the back of my mind the haunting story of Feng Xiang, a local public affairs official in Beichuan, who committed suicide on Monday. Feng's seven-year-old son was killed in the earthquake last May. On the day he hanged himself, Feng wrote a blog post which included these exhausted words: "I really find it too painful to be living. Please let me rest."

I've been thinking that in his job with the local government, Feng would likely have dealt with reporters like me: bringing people to the disaster area and answering their questions about what happened, over and over. How might that have compounded his grief?

In his final blog post, Feng addressed his dead son, Feng Hanmo: "I will come to you and be together with you forever. Please believe in a father's deepest love for you." On Wednesday, Feng Xiang was buried under a tree at a primary school where his son is also buried.

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