This past week has seen a resurgence of vague, disturbing stories of disease outbreaks in China, and tales of news censorship. Whether there is any truth to these stories, or what that truth might be, is impossible to tell.
There are, after all, multiple political agendas at work here.
The Chinese government obviously wants the Olympics to go off without a hitch, and for nothing to sully China's image during the intensive press coverage that is building.
Even without the Olympics, China consistently ranks near the bottom of countries ranked by the freedom of their press by Reporters Without Borders. Here are the bottom 10 countries on this year's list.
159 Saudi Arabia
167 North Korea
After the debacle of SARS coverup in 2003, very few observers are comfortable with the level of transparency exhibited by the Chinese government when it come to admitting they have a problem.
So when articles begin to appear in the press suggesting there is a new disease outbreak somewhere in China, and the Chinese government either denies this, or simply refuses to comment, Internet speculation takes off.
This week, there have been multiple reports of some sort of hemorrhagic illness in a village in China. The reports in Chinese are both difficult to translate and interpret.
While the details vary, many are similar to this short report from dajiyuan.com.
(Hat Tip Pugmom on the Wiki)
July 27 - Tang Xingwen County in Shandong 10,000 Hau Tsuen recently, a man suffering from unknown disease, high fever for several days not to not long after the death, before his death vomit blood.
Contact with him many people are infected, of which his father had died and Gufu (man vomited up blood splashed on them). On the other infected people has been to follow the current missing.
The matter has been reported to authorities in Beijing, back on sampling. 10,000 Hau Tsuen has been closed, while contacts with the outside world, villagers were threatened not to leak information.
There have been other stories, in other newspapers, that talk of a `meningitis' outbreak in Qingdao with hemorrhagic symptoms.
The various flu forums, and their newshounds, have been working overtime trying to figure out what, if anything, these reports represent. It's hard, and frustrating work.
We know, of course, that there are dissident groups who would like very much to disrupt China's Olympics. Propaganda isn't just a tool of the government in power.
So we can't automatically assume that these stories are true.
But we can't assume they are false, either.
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Last month we heard similar stories out of North Korea; mysterious deaths and illnesses possibly connected to `bird flu'. Sitting at the very bottom of the Freedom of the Press list, denials issued by their government inspire little confidence.
Here is an AP report from June 19th.
SEOUL (AP) — North Korea strongly denied Thursday that bird flu had recently broken out in the country, contradicting a report from an outside aid group.
The Seoul-based Good Friends organization said last week that the disease had been discovered in the communist nation's northeast on June 3, when several birds were found dead near a military base.
The group also said dozens of magpies were found dead inside a camp for political prisoners in an adjacent province, and a child of one prison official subsequently suffered a high fever and died, although the cause of the deaths was unclear.
If there was anything to this report (and I have my doubts), then the North Korean government has managed to suppress it.
* * * * *
Indonesia, which ranks 117th down the Press Freedom list, has recently stopped reporting bird flu cases or fatalities in `real time'. What little information they are releasing, is provided on their own timetable.
What they are withholding, if anything, is unknown.
What we do know is that over the past month news stories about bird flu (Flu Burung) have all but disappeared from the English language papers in that nation.
Even the local, Bahasan language media, has little to say about bird flu anymore. Occasional reports of poultry deaths, and that's about it.
While there are still some reporters valiantly trying to cover the story in Indonesia, the government is doing what they can to thwart their efforts.
And of course, other nations are watching. Taking note. And considering their options.
If Indonesia can get away with this . . .
* * * * *
The Internet abhors a news vacuum.
Countries that believe they can suppress the news may find it possible for a while - even desirable - but eventually someone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection will get the story out. Or it will be smuggled out on a disk or memory stick.
Until real news emerges we are often left with little more than rumor and innuendo. And frankly, these rumors are often far more damaging than the truth.
While I believe that nations are shooting themselves in the foot by suppressing the news, that isn't my real concern.
Someday, another disease like SARS will emerge from a country like China that has a history of controlling their press. It could be a pandemic influenza, or it could be something else entirely. But whatever it is, it wont just be a problem for the originating country.
It will be a problem for the world.
And the longer the world is kept in the dark, the better foothold it will have. And the more people it will affect.
Avian flu news this summer has been slow. Almost non-existent. Maybe that's a good sign. Or maybe we just aren't hearing from hotzone countries anymore.
That's the problem with the suppression of the news.
You can't even take it as a good sign when the news is slow.