China tightens law on handling disasters including information flows

Closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing

By Liz Lee and Ethan Wang

BEIJING (Reuters) -China tightened controls on handling accidents and disasters, increasing penalties on authorities that respond poorly and tightening government surveillance of media reporting on emergencies.

Legal revisions announced late on Friday aim to "improve the ability for emergency prevention and response" and refine how information is disseminated about natural disasters, accidents and public health emergencies.

Government guidance over news coverage could tighten media restrictions and access in a country that is already on constant guard against reports that could potentially harm social stability and security, some media analysts said.

An escalation of extreme weather events has tested China's emergency responses in recent years as the country faces more severe floods and drought. Disasters such as earthquakes have also challenged local officials in remote and rural areas.

The revisions to the Emergency Response Law, which take effect on Nov. 1, boost five-fold the maximum fine for failure to adequately prepare for or respond to disasters, to 1 million yuan ($140,000).

Official guidance over news coverage will be tightened. The law calls for an enhanced "news interviewing and reporting system" for emergencies but does not give specific guidelines.

Government departments must "guide" news media and "support" them in conducting interviews and reporting, as well as "conduct supervision" on public opinion.

News of emergencies should be "timely, accurate, objective and fair", emergency warnings prompt and designated personnel should be appointed to receive and disseminate warning information to public and crowded areas, the revised law says.

"The stated purpose is to increase accuracy and objectivity of information, but the new law further monopolises state control over information flows," said Katja Drinhausen, head of the politics and society programme at European think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies.

The revisions make terms for journalists reporting on emergencies even more prescriptive, said Jemimah Steinfeld, the CEO of UK-based Index on Censorship.

The revisions, passed by the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, add more than 30 provisions to the 2007 law.

The law bars government agencies from instructing others to delay, falsely report or conceal information, or obstruct others from reporting.

Tardy reaction from officials in managing disasters have triggered public backlashes in the past.

A hospital fire that killed 29 in Beijing last year prompted online debate as official news reports only surfaced eight hours after the incident.

Also last year residents in Zhuozhou complained of receiving no warnings and of authorities that "disappeared" as unprecedented floods inundated the northern city.

Under the legal revisions, foreigners in China will be required to abide by the law and follow local government decisions and orders.

"Overall, this points to the need for foreigners living and working in China, media outlets as well as international businesses with a presence in the country, to pay close attention to the emerging regulatory system around crisis preparedness, as well as the political expectations in case of emergency," said Drinhausen.

Foreign reporters sometimes face grassroots resistance and even obstruction while gathering news on the ground about accidents and disasters.

In 2021, an angry crowd targeted a German journalist while he was reporting on floods in the central city of Zhengzhou, accusing foreign journalists of "slandering everything in China", German media DW reported.

Journalists from Chinese state media have also been harassed.

In March, reporters from the state broadcaster and other media were blocked and shoved while covering a blast at a fried chicken shop in Sanhe, a city next to Beijing, prompting the domestic association overseeing Chinese journalists to issue a rare statement of protest.

($1 = 7.2670 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Liz Lee and Ethan Wang; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Alexander Smith and William Mallard)