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Coal Mine Tragedies and a Veil of Silence

05-22 08:53 Caijing

The use of media gag fees to conceal coal mine accidents is at the center of a reporter's corruption trial in Hebei Province.

By staff reporter Zhu Tao

(Caijing Magazine) A closed-door trial is under way for a Beijing-based journalist accused of aiding in the cover-up of a coal mine accident that killed 34 miners and a rescue worker last summer in Hebei Province.

Guan Jian, a reporter for the weekly newspaper Network News, went on trial April 28 in the city of Zhangjiakou for allegedly accepting gag fees from a local government.

The accident at the illegal Lijiawa mine in Yuxian County occurred July 14, but 85 days passed before the first official details were released to the public, according to a central government investigation team organized by the State Council in October.

Investigators determined that the Zhangjikou city government's publicity department conspired with journalists to conceal the accident.

So far, authorities have detained at least 25 local officials from Yuxian and Zhangjiakou. They include the director of the Zhangjiakou Coal Mine Safety Supervision Bureau, Gao Jicun, and the deputy director of the publicity department, Chang Yifeng.

Mine owner Li Chengkui also was arrested. And Caijing has learned that Wang Fengzhong, a Yuxian deputy governor, is being investigated for contributing to the cover-up.

Chang was accused of paying gag fees to several reporters, including Guan, who kept a lid on the incident. He was detained by the Communist Party's disciplinary agency in October and later confessed, officials said.

Guan has defended himself by arguing that he simply wrote a news story and submitted it to editors. "But it was not my duty to decide whether it would be published," he said.

According to the procurator prosecuting the case, Network News Chief Editor Ren Pengyu assigned Guan to cover the accident. The reporter arrived at the scene July 20, wrote a report and sent it to the newspaper. Ren told Guan the newspaper would run the story.

An indictment said Guan also sent the unpublished story to Chang on the afternoon of July 24.

Also getting a copy of the raw story was Wang, the deputy governor whose responsibilities include supervision of the local coal industry. After reading the report, he allegedly told Chang "no matter how it's done, hold the case."

Chang then contacted Guan and asked him to delay the report. He explained that the accident was still under investigation, and said he would contact the newspaper when conclusions were reached.

Chang also contacted Ren. The editor allegedly said the story's publication could be postponed, but that the official should negotiate a deal with Guan.

After bargaining, the prosecution says, the Yuxian government paid the newspaper 250,000 yuan for two advertisements as well as a subscription fee of 30,000 yuan – enough for a 100-year subscription. Network News then delayed the report.

Guan was seen being taken away by unidentified people in early December, stirring public concern. Fifteen days later, officials said Guan had been arrested by Zhangjiakou police on bribery charges related to the mine accident.

Court officials have not released a timetable for the closed-door trial except to acknowledge its start date.

The Yuxian accident is only the latest involving a media conspiracy to conceal information. Fu Hua, a journalist for the China Business News, was sued in 2005 for accepting a bribe tied to reporting a construction quality problem at an airport project in northern China's city of Changchun.

Last September, several journalists were accused of accepting gag fees in the cover-up of a coal mine accident in Shanxi Province. And in last December, one journalist went on trial for taking bribes.

Guan's case has attracted wide attention as an example of a conspiracy between local government and media agencies to hide the truth.

Why would a local government pay gag fees? A simple answer is that news about an accident at a surreptitious mine may have a negative impact on political evaluations of the local economy and government performance, since the central government has been trying to crack down on illegal coal mines. A bad report may even lead to removals of local officials.

Rather than simply exchange cash for silence, many local governments buy advertisements. This system, which local officials consider an efficient way to control the news, has been accepted by some media outlets and journalists.

Mine owners, particularly those digging illegally, would rather pay gag fees than handle damage claims and other compensation after an accident. Gag fees are always more expensive, but taking a legal compensation route could prompt a mine shutdown by authorities.

Local governments take the same stance as mine owners, considering media payoffs the most profitable approach to accident publicity. Under such circumstances, though, the media is under pressure to conceal the truth. Moreover, monopolies and market restrictions have been blamed for the kind of information control that can create opportunities for corruption.

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