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Death Toll in China Cruise Ship Disaster on Yangtze River Rises, Chinese Government Censors Key Information

( [email protected] ) Jun 04, 2015 12:51 PM EDT
As the death toll from the capsizing of a cruise ship on China's Yangtze River continues to rise, authorities are working to tirelessly to control the information coming out about the disaster.
A grieving family awaits news about their family member, who was aboard the Eastern Star when it capsized on Monday night. Reuters

As the death toll from the capsizing of a cruise ship on China's Yangtze River continues to rise, authorities are working to tirelessly to control the information coming out about the disaster.

On Wednesday, Reuters confirmed that 65 people are dead and another 370 remain missing after the Eastern Star cruise ship, carrying 458 people, reportedly sailed into a storm, causing the boat to capsize.

State media reports that nearly two days later, more than 200 divers remain on the scene, trying to find any survivors - but rain and choppy waters have complicated their efforts. Meanwhile, grieving families are demanding answers and criticizing the government's refusal to release the names of the ship's passengers.

Beijing has pledged that there would be "no cover-up" of an investigation regarding the disaster, and President Xi Jinping on Thursday convened a special meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee to discuss the disaster.

"We will never shield mistakes and we'll absolutely not cover up (anything)," Xu Chengguang, the spokesman for the Ministry of Transport, told a news conference on Wednesday.

However, NPR reports that despite its promise of transparency, the Chinese government is only releasing tightly censored information in an attempt to avoid public outrage.

The report notes that the The Central Propaganda Department contacted editors, telling them to only use the information from Xinhua (the state news agency) and China Central TV and not to send reporters to the river.

"The government has told Chinese media not to dispatch more reporters to the scene of the capsizing, according to leaked censorship instructions. And they're to immediately recall those who are already there," reported NPR journalist Frank Langfitt.

"Officials have ordered news media to only use authoritative, government-controlled sources, such as the New China News Service and China Central Television. But many Chinese journalists appear to be ignoring the orders, and are staying in the area and continuing to report," he added.

Police have also closed roads into the Hubei province to keep foreign journalists out. Additionally, all online comments and discussion containing any criticism or negative implications are being deleted by authorities.

According to a report from Quartz, "Eastern Star" is currently the most censored term on the microblog Weibo. For example, comments calling into question officials' explanation of weather problems and claiming that the ship's captain ignored several weather warnings were deleted.

However, the general public has expressed outrage over the censorship; The Daily Mail reports that on Wednesday, dozens of relatives of those missing gathered outside Shanghai's main government building to demand information, effectively clashing with police.

Another group hired its own bus travel to Jianli, then marched toward the river in protest.

The Washington Post notes that Chinese authorities have previously censored the reporting of national tragedies and public discussion. Similar measures were taken after the 2003 SARS epidemic,  the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the deadly stampede in Shanghai this past New Years' Eve.