China takes action in killing of journalist

In rare act, president orders investigation

January 25, 2007|By Evelyn Iritani | Evelyn Iritani,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- Lan Chengzhang could have been just another crime statistic.

But in a rare move yesterday, Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered a speedy investigation into the murder of the 34-year-old Chinese journalist who was attacked this month on his way to meet the owner of an illegal coal mine in northern China.

Lan's beating death triggered protests from domestic and international media groups. They are demanding stronger protections for Chinese journalists, who face significant government restraints and harrowing conditions.

Hu's intervention was "very unusual," said Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the international relations school at Renmin University.

Politburo standing member Li Changchun and Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang joined the president's call for a speedy and thorough investigation of the death, according to a report yesterday in the official China News Service.

Jin speculated that China's top leaders were attempting to demonstrate to the outside world, and domestic critics, that they were serious about protecting freedom of the press, particularly when it intersects with the booming mine industry. China is trying to shed its reputation for having the world's most dangerous coal mines, where last year it lost 4,746 workers to blasts, floods and other accidents.

Jin said yesterday's action also represented a bit of central government muscle-flexing, delivering a message to local officials and mine owners that they are not above the law.

Lan's killing has exacerbated tensions between the Chinese government and the press, which has become far more aggressive about reporting on corruption and crime in recent years.

Though Chinese journalists enjoy much greater freedom than they had in the past, the government still controls the content of domestic media outlets. Earlier this week, the government ordered satellite TV networks to limit prime-time programming to "ethically inspiring TV dramas" and to remove imported cartoons or programs featuring crime, guns, sex, love affairs or divorces.

The government also polices the Web and blocks access to many overseas Internet sites. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based journalists' rights group, was in Beijing this week to lobby the Chinese government to release journalists and "cyber-dissidents" being held in Chinese jails.

Investigative journalism has proved dangerous in China. Last year, two journalists died after being beaten by police, according to the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based journalism organization. In a statement issued after Lan's death, the press watchdog urged China's leaders to "do everything in their power to make sure that the perpetuators of such crimes are brought to justice according to international standards."

The motives behind Lan's killing are unclear. China's go-go economy has created a huge demand for energy, leading to a spiraling number of small, illegal mines operating without supervision.

Lan and a colleague were on their way Jan. 10 to meet with Hou Zhenrun, the owner of an unlicensed coal mine, when they were attacked by a mob. Lan, who worked for China Trade News, was taken to a hospital and died the next day of a brain hemorrhage.

Chinese journalists who went to investigate the attack outside the city of Datong, in northern Shanxi province, were prevented from entering the hospital, leading to a clash with the police, according to the International Press Institute. Local officials claimed Lan was not a reporter and said he was trying to blackmail the mine owner in exchange for not reporting on the mine's illegal status.

Late yesterday, local officials held a news conference and said mine owner Hou, who surrendered to authorities last week, had confessed to organizing the attack. They also insisted that Lan was "planning to extort" money from the mine owner.

Evelyn Iritani writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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