China’s Control of News and Information May Have Worsened SARS Epidemic, Broadcasters Say

Washington, D.C. June 5, 2003 – China’s control of news and information prevented people from receiving information about SARS and may have worsened the epidemic, U.S. international broadcasters told a federal commission today.

“To this day, China’s statistics remain dubious and not credible,” Jay Henderson, director of the Voice of America’s (www.voanews.com) East Asia and Pacific Division, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Capitol Hill. “But, as the SARS disaster reveals, Beijing believes total control of ideas is still vital to national security.”

Noting that VOA and RFA aired Mandarin reports on SARS in February, two months before China acknowledged a problem, Henderson said: “One cannot help but wonder if the scale of the SARS crisis might have been held down if the Chinese had not been jamming our broadcasts and blocking our web pages.”

Dan Southerland, vice president and executive editor of Radio Free Asia (www.rfa.org), said, “Early on, the (Chinese) government simply blacked out the news of SARS. After months of silence, outside pressure from the World Health Organization and information flowing in from the outside world forced the government to admit that China faced a ‘serious’ situation.’”

RFA, Southerland said, prepared an investigative story that concluded local government in Guangzhou province “was blacking out news of a mysterious new disease and that, as a result of a dearth of information, people were panicking.” People did not know how the disease spread, he said.

Kenneth Berman, manager of the Internet Anti-Censorship Program under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (www.bbg.gov) told the commission the Chinese jam the VOA and RFA shortwave broadcasts into China. “The jamming consists of playing endless loops of Chinese opera music at the same time and on the same frequency as the VOA and RFA broadcasts,” he said.

Berman also explained U.S. government-sponsored efforts to overcome the blockage of VOA and RFA websites. The Chinese are hungry for information, he said, noting that China has between 39 million and 63 million.

“As unfortunate as SARS is, it has been a boon to the freedom of Internet information movement,” Berman said. “Our news is anxiously followed, the VOA and RFA Chinese language traffic has doubled, and has allowed Chinese citizens free, unfettered access to a wide range of previously censored information.”

Panelists also raised reciprocity issues. For instance, China has allowed VOA to station only two journalists in Beijing. RFA is allowed none. Meantime, more than 40 Chinese government-sponsored journalists work and travel in the United States.

Henderson said the commission could take a “first step” by invoking reciprocity between the number of Chinese government-sponsored journalists in the United States, and the number of U.S. government-sponsored journalists in China.

Commission members praised the work of U.S. international broadcasting to China, with Commissioner Larry Wortzel saying, “You’re doing a great job getting the world out.”

VOA and RFA are supervised by the BBG. Full testimony can be found at www.bbg.gov.

The BBG is an independent federal agency which supervises all U.S. government-supported non-military international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Radio Free Asia (RFA); Radio and TV Mart

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