Chinese Journalists Grasp New Freedoms

The deadly earthquake in Sichuan province has offered many Chinese journalists unprecedented freedom to report the story. But an increasingly open reporting environment does not appear to extend to political coverage.

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Many of China's journalists are now covering the biggest stories yet in their careers. It started with the Beijing Olympics, then the protests surrounding those games, and then the devastating earthquake last week.

Many of them say they have unprecedented freedom to report the story live and in-depth. And this increased freedom does not appear to extend to political coverage. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Chengdu, many Chinese reporters are encouraged by what they consider an increasingly open environment.

ANTHONY KUHN: Many young Chinese reporters have never been thrown into a story that is so challenging: physically, professionally and emotionally. In the devastated township of Hanwang, Xinhua news agency photojournalist Pei Xin roams among the crumbled buildings photographing the rescue workers looking for signs of life. He says that from a personal angle, it's hard to take.

Mr. PEI XIN (Photojournalist): (Through translator) When we got here we were hoping to see miracles, but it's been too hot and too long since the earthquake. And the rescuers are mostly digging up corpses. We're disappointed, and our hearts are very heavy.

KUHN: On a professional level, though, Pei says he's encouraged.

Mr. PEI: (Through translator) Domestic and foreign media have had equal opportunities to get into the disaster zones and report, and the locals have been pretty cooperative. I think this relatively freer reporting environment is a sign of more openness.

KUHN: In Chengdu, (unintelligible) evening news reporter Liu Rong is waiting for a government press conference to begin. She says that her paper has given her an entire page to fill each day as she sees fit.

Ms. LIU RONG (Journalist): (Through translator) Our paper hasn't assigned any particular angle for us to cover. Many of our colleagues are told by their leaders what kind of stories they're supposed to find and report on, but we're free to report the story as we see it.

KUHN: Chinese reporters say that the depth and volume of reporting on this disaster is unprecedented. Like other papers, Liu's is devoting two-thirds of its space to earthquake reporting. Sichuan TV and other channels have broadcast days of around-the-clock earthquake news.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

KUHN: Here, China's central television follows a family as rescuers free their daughter from the rubble of a collapsed school in Mendru(ph) City. The dramatic images of rescue workers and grieving families could be from any disaster story around the world.

The media have also played a crucial public-service role. They've helped quake victims to find missing relatives and encouraged the public to donate money and to do volunteer work. But the government is not eager to see reports that criticize their response to the earthquake as too slow, or reports that discuss official corruption and the shoddy construction of schools, which collapsed and killed students.

Yu Guoming, a leading media scholar at People's University in Beijing, says these issues will come up later.

Mr. YU GUOMING (People's University, Beijing): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: When the rescue efforts are over, he says, we will enter a period of reconstruction and reflection. And I'm sure that issues such as building quality will come to the surface then.

Propaganda officials fear losing control over journalists, and they try to prevent them from reporting outside their own provinces. One Chinese colleague who spoke off the record said that quite a few Chinese reporters defied government orders not to travel to Sichuan. Some of them even paid their travel expenses out of their own pockets.

Yu Guoming says this shows an increasing sense of professionalism among Chinese journalists.

Mr. YU: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Chinese journalists are quite aware of their social and professional responsibilities, he says. And they're very willing to actively cover the story, even though the system sometimes limits their ability to do so.

Before the earthquake, Chinese media were still busy criticizing the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Western media following the unrest in Tibet. Soon, they will be welcoming the world to the Beijing Olympics. For China's young journalists, this year offers a crash course in understanding their own country and explaining it to the outside world.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Chengdu.

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