Mine Probe Reporter Threatened

A journalist is targeted for his work covering coal-seam exploitation in central China.

shanxiaccident-305.jpg Rescue operations underway at a coal mine landslide in Shanxi province, July 6, 2011.

A top investigative journalist who exposed the problem of land subsidence in the poverty-stricken coal-mining heartland of Shanxi says he has received anonymous phone calls and threats linked to his work in recent days.

"A lot of people have called me up, but they don't tell me their names, and I don't know whom I'm talking to," journalist Gao Qinrong told RFA's Mandarin service.

"They warn me to 'be careful' or they threaten or harass," he said.

But he said he wouldn't cave in to threats.

"I'm not afraid of them," he said. "By 'being careful' they mean that they might be out to get me. Probably they will close down a few websites."

Gao, a former bureau chief with the official Xinhua news agency now turned independent reporter, said his troubles began after he published an article in the Xinmin Weekly titled "Investigation into the coal-mining district of Shanxi."

"From the point of view of [the authorities in] Shanxi, of course they wouldn't want to see these things spoken about openly," Gao said. "They don't want their warts uncovered."

Coal-seam exploitation

Gao's latest investigation was into a little-reported phenomenon in Shanxi, which is routinely hit by mine collapses resulting in large numbers of casualties.

His article explored how the intensive exploitation of the coal-seams below the province in the past few decades to meet China's skyrocketing energy demands has undermined the geological structure of the earth itself.

"Underground, it is hollow ... The whole of Pangpangta village was swallowed up," he said, referring to a subsidence accident on Aug. 15 which was widely reported in the official media. "It doesn't take an earthquake [to do this]."

Photos of Pangpangta village posted on Chinese news websites and bulletin boards, and listed in a Google search on Tuesday, showed houses fallen into chasms in the earth, huge cracks along a village street, and collapsed and damaged buildings similar to a scene after an earthquake.

Rather than focusing on Pangpangta as an isolated incident, Gao's report looked at the problem of mine collapse and subsidence across the whole of the Shanxi mining district.

"[We are talking about] subsidence over a wide area," he said. "My feeling is that Shanxi is entering into a period of collapse following several decades of mining."

Sensitive reporting

According to Gao's online resume, he worked in the Shanxi branch of Xinhua before being indicted on what he describes as "trumped-up charges" in 1998 after he exposed corruption linked to a fake irrigation project in Yuncheng prefecture.

He served eight years in prison, and continued his career as a freelance journalist after his release in 2006.

Gao said his article had created its own political earthquake in Shanxi, with the local propaganda department holding an emergency meeting and banning the publication of any reports on the same topic in future.

China's government has maintained its stranglehold on the media in spite of attempts by a growing number of investigative reporters to expose corruption and health and safety scandals.

Last month, it launched a crackdown on online "rumors," detaining or issuing warnings to netizens who posted sensitive or undesirable information on websites and microblogs.

Journalists who do uncover scandals are often the targets of physical assault by unidentified assailants. In September, Luoyang TV reporter Li Xiang was found stabbed to death after he reported on the illegal recycling of carcinogenic waste oil into cooking oil, sparking dozens of arrests.

The 2010 survey of global press freedom carried out by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres put China 171st out of 178 countries and territories for journalistic autonomy.

Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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