Sunday, July 27, 2008

In The Land Of The News Blackout The Internet Rumor Is King


# 2180



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.



158 Iran
159 Saudi Arabia
160 Nepal
161 Vietnam
162 China
163  Eritrea
164 Turkmenistan
165 Burma
166 Cuba
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 


(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.



North Korea denies bird flu

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.




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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 . . .



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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. 


Commonground said...

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.

Would we believe a picture? That is the question. What would define this as "real" news?

SophiaZoe said...

Great piece (as always) Mike. This story is one of those stories where "the truth" is impossible to puzzle out with what we have available. Impossible even with the practiced adeptness of the Flu Community's co-intelligence.

The cyber flu community has one other practiced talent though, and that is patience to see a story through to its resolution. Eyes are not going away, nor will they lose interest. Should the story out of China prove to be one with "teeth" we will soon see the bared snarl. We have practice in waiting. We may not like it when we have to wait but we've become quite good at it.

What countries who attempt to conceal truth don't account for is that concealing a truth doesn't make that truth go away, the truth is still there... waiting... and we are here...waiting... eventually the truth and will find its out.

It's quiet out there, yes, but your post today reminded me of that old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?

In the case of that question the answer is informed by whether it is a philosopher or physicist asking. PanFlu/AI rumors or unsubstantiated facts if you will, are also informed by who is reading/asking. But at least folk are reading and asking and every country would be wise to know and understand that, because it's not one or the other asking/reading... it's both.


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