The ruling Chinese Communist Party is moving to curb media organizations and social media users in their reporting of the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic, RFA has learned, as the number of confirmed cases rose to more than 17,000 with a total of 362 deaths reported on Monday.
Journalists in Wuhan working for Caixin, Phoenix news, and other state-approved news organizations have been ordered by the party's powerful propaganda department to conduct a review of their coverage after their reports indicated that local officials had likely sought to cover up the extent of the outbreak in its early stages.
Journalists who had interviewed patients or their families, or reported on the large number of patients left to fend for themselves at home due to a lack of resources, and were therefore left out of official statistics, were also targeted for "review" by propaganda officials.
Many estimates have taken the number of undiagnosed, untreated, and uncounted coronavirus patients into account, with the majority of observers convinced that the number of cases likely exceeds 100,000, with deaths also going unreported.
One reporter who declined to be named said propaganda officials had ordered their publication to delete a reference to large numbers of uncounted cases.
"The more severe censorship was around the question of statistics," the journalist told RFA. "The central propaganda department directly ordered the deletion of that part."
"Other media have been prevented from publishing some stories; the copy just hasn't been published with no notice given, even by word of mouth," the journalist said.
Call for CT scans
Government censors have also deleted accounts belonging to medical imaging experts Zhang Bo and Zhang Xiaochun of Wuhan University's Zhongnan Hospital after they posted a request for diagnosis to be made through CT scans rather than genetic tests of the virus.
Zhang Xiaochun had also called on the government to search hotels and student dormitories for suspected patients to avoid clusters of infection from spreading in areas where people live together.
Zhang was also one source of the estimate that the true number of coronavirus cases is likely around 100,000.
Her posts came after relatives said via RFA and social media reports that they had been unable to get a diagnosis or treatment for their sick family members because of a lack of hospital beds or coronavirus test kits.
A professor surnamed Zhou at Central South University in neighboring Hunan province said Zhang's allegations ring completely true, and warned that sending patients back home will just mean that they infect all of their family and friends.
"What she's saying is totally true. This is indeed what is happening," Zhou said. "They won't just be infecting their families but other people in the same building."
"It's no good relying on [government] neighborhood committees to prevent infection."
Calls to Zhongnan Hospital rang unanswered on Monday.
A staff member who answered the phone at Wuhan University declined to comment, saying she didn't know about the situation regarding the two hospital staff members.
Citizen journalist held, released
The warnings to media professionals and social media users came as state security police released citizen journalist Fang Bin after detaining him in connection with a video he posted of dead and dying patients in Wuhan's No. 5 Hospital at the weekend.
The video went viral, and a group of people showed up at Fang's home, dressed as medical personnel.
They were actually police, and they confiscated Fang's computers and took him away for questioning, according to a video he posted about his ordeal.
"This is why I've been saying all along that my safety depends on all of you," he said, thanking social media users for their outcry following his detention.
"There's no point in being fearful or craven, right? The more fearful you are, the worse this sort of thing will get," he said. "Everyone has to work together. We have to save ourselves in a nationwide movement."
"You all saved me, and I am very grateful to you all."
A Hubei resident who asked to remain anonymous said he hopes Fang goes back to reporting from Wuhan regardless.
"I hope that other citizens in Hubei, as well as professional journalists, will be courageous enough to report on the actual situation from the front line," the resident said.
"I also hope that the authorities won't try to cover anything up. The more transparent they are about the facts, the less worried people will be."
Police under 'huge pressure'
In Beijing, veteran rights activist Hu Jia said he was also taken away for questioning by state security police.
"[The state security police] are under huge pressure over this epidemic," Hu said. "But people's sense of grievance is already at boiling point because of [the government's] irresponsibility in covering everything up."
"They have to stamp out any sign of criticism online," Hu said, adding that he was likely detained for speaking to RFA in an earlier interview.
"They reduce your words to trying to overthrow the system, accuse you of using the epidemic to incite subversion of state power, because they feel that this is even more of a threat to [party rule] than the Hong Kong protests last year," he said.
"At least they could keep what was going on in Hong Kong outside the Great Firewall and the Shenzhen river, but the epidemic concerns everyone," he said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.