HONG KONG—Chinese authorities were quick to take the initiative in their handling of media reporting of the recent ethnic violence in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) but took pains to limit coverage that would highlight Uyghur grievances, commentators say.
Netizens said some real-time citizen journalist reports were seen in the hours following the ethnic violence sparked July 5 following a Uyghur protest over deaths at a south China factory.
"When we heard that something had happened in Xinjiang, we all went online to try to find some information," said Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser, whose blog was shut down after she posted real-time updates during the unrest in Lhasa and other Tibetan regions of the country last year.
"There were some people posting their own personal accounts of what was happening on [social media]. But these were often removed very soon after posting. I'm talking about a matter of minutes," she said.
Woeser said some of the accounts contained revealing personal descriptions of what was happening from people who were there, in the moment, but didn't stay visible for long.
"It just goes to show that the government has a very advanced capability when it comes to controlling information online. They are very fast and efficient ... [After these accounts] were removed, the only voice that could still be heard was the official line," she said.
Meanwhile, a Han Chinese Web publisher who declined to be named said his privately owned news Web site had mostly engaged in self-censorship around the politically sensitive ethnic violence in the XUAR, without specific guidance from the authorities about exactly what material to remove.
"They just tell us that anything concerning opposition to the government won't be tolerated ... What happens if you don't take them off is that they will turn off the site at the server at the service center," he said.
"This has happened to me many times. They tell me that I should take some time to remove the offending material, and when I'm done they will reconnect my site again. If you don't do a good job of removing this material, they just pull the plug on you."
Chinese officials reacted with unprecedented speed to the July 5 riots, which Uyghurs say were sparked by an armed crackdown on unarmed Uyghur protesters calling for an investigation into a concerted attack by Han Chinese on Uyghurs at the Xuri toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, the week before.
They issued invitations to foreign journalists, setting up an international press center and holding news conferences with city leaders.
But some journalists were detained when they strayed too far from the portrait the government wanted them to paint.
These news measures came in sharp contrast with the blackout imposed during the Tibetan uprising of early 2008, when international media were forced to rely almost exclusively on reports from Tibetan exile sources.
Foreign journalists held
Police detained a number of foreign journalists covering the recent ethnic violence in Urumqi, including a reporter for RFA's Cantonese service who tried to take photos of police detaining Uyghurs near the Urumqi Grand Bazaar.
One Uyghur activist who declined to be named said foreign journalists had relatively little freedom to find out what had really happened on July 5, and what had sparked retaliatory violence from Han Chinese mobs in the days that followed.
Armed police and military personnel put the city under curfew, and sealed off Uyghur neighborhoods from the rest of the city. Uyghur residents said secutity forces maintained a relaxed attitude to the Han Chinese rioters, compared with when Uyghurs caused trouble.
But foreign journalists were protected by police from angry Han Chinese with weapons, who accused them of biased coverage.
The Uyghur activist said there was little foreign journalists could do, caught between their official handlers and an angry mob.
"Their range of activity was very limited. The Chinese government was controlling them in a very intelligent way, telling them where they could and couldn't go, and who they could or couldn't interview," he said.
"Some journalists were detained by the police and kicked out of the region, and not allowed to go to the more sensitive areas."
He said the aim of the government was to manipulate foreign media coverage to suit its own purposes.
"Some of the hospitals were full of Han Chinese who had been beaten or killed, but they didn't take the journalists to see any Uyghurs who had been beaten or killed. They didn't let them see those things," the activist said.
"But some of the journalists still managed to see other things, and report on other aspects of the situation."
Conversely, CCTV, Xinhua news agency, and other domestic news media carried reports about Uyghurs beating up ordinary citizens, and carried shots of burned out vehicles, Uyghurs said.
"They did not report that the Chinese military shot and killed Uyghurs. Every time something like this happens in China, the government makes the killed-and-injured figures look smaller than they are. This is known as playing down big incidents and denying small ones," one Uyghur said.
A Uyghur resident of Urumqi said soon after the curfew was imposed: "Be it a Uyghur channel or a Chinese channel on television, they are only showing the scenes where the Uyghurs are beating up the Chinese. Never will you see a scene where the Chinese are slaying Uyghur people, and the police shooting the Uyghurs," he said.
"They are even accusing the Uyghurs with labels such as 'ethnic separatists' and 'offenders against national unity,'" he added.
An official who answered the phone at the Urumqi municipal government said he was unable to comment on the handling of foreign journalists by officials. "I don't know about this," he said.Initial reports more open
Meanwhile, Munich-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress Dilshat Rashit said the Chinese government had put out an "unremitting stream of extreme propaganda" about what happened right from the beginning of the incident to its suppression.
"We believe that the death toll is much higher than the numbers put out by the government, and we think that the real number is higher than 1,000," Rashit said.
"Our view is that the government has ignored the legitimate demands of Uyghurs, and that it used armed force to crack down on Uyghurs who were staging a peaceful demonstration."
In Beijing, Woeser said that while the government had shown it had the ability to maintain tight control over information, it had failed to do so in the early stages of the conflict, when the first reports came out of the Xuri toy factory in Guangdong.
"In the wake of the [Shaoguan incident] the media were full of reports ... about 'Han women workers raped' and so on. This news took a while to filter through from the official media to ordinary people online, and got blown up bigger and bigger, and the anti-Uyghur sentiment online was really very harsh during those few days," Woeser said.
"The clearest example of this was after the organised attack on Uyghurs had happened, the authorities once more tried to back off the story by saying it was rumors."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan and in Uyghur by Erkin. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.