Early this year, rumors started flowing from the south China city of Guangzhou of a new form of avian flu that was killing hundreds of people. But the government-controlled Chinese press said not a word.
On Feb. 9, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., also known as Roche, held a press conference in Guangzhou to announce it had a new drug that addressed the avian flu. The government forbade news outlets from reporting the announcement and accused Roche of promoting the drug by starting rumors of hundreds of deaths.
The Chinese press stood quiet.
Only when free and independent Hong Kong reporters began to press did truth start to emerge. The South China Morning Post reported on Feb. 18 that 300 people were hospitalized. The government acknowledged that six people had died, but continued to blame Roche, rather than people’s lack of accurate information, for causing a panic.
By then, it was too late.
As Dan Kubiske, co-chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee and a resident of Hong Kong, notes: “Because the Chinese government banned all reporting of any flu-like epidemic, no one knew what he/she had. They were then allowed to travel and spread the disease. … The Chinese government – local and national – was willing to let the rumors continue (and the subsequent social disorder) and blame others for the problems until the Hong Kong press began looking into the issue and forced the hand of the government to admit there were indeed flu-related deaths.”
Even then, it took two more months before China acknowledged how big the problem really was. SARS had spread around the world.
There is a moral in this story for the Bush administration.
Openness is good. The more information in people’s hands, the more they can protect themselves – or insist that their government do the things it should to protect them. Protecting our rights to access information is also good. Chipping away at those protections is dangerous.
While the Bush administration may not go to the extremes of the Chinese, it shows the same tendency to believe that secrecy is best. It was on that path before Sept. 11, 2001, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only accelerated the trend.
Consider that one of the first reactions to the attacks was to pull information off the Internet. Information on the safety of dams was yanked. So were reports that detailed which chemicals were stored at industrial plants, or how much toxic material they emitted each year.
I suppose it’s possible that terrorists might have plotted an attack using that information. But it’s no less likely now that the information has been pulled from sight. For instance, it’s common knowledge that sewage plants store a lot of chlorine, a deadly gas. What else does a terrorist need to know?
Hiding information about such chemicals hurts the public far more than it protects us. When the data was on a Web site, people living downwind from a plant could find out what risks they were subjected to. They could do their research and press the plant to use less toxic alternatives or adopt safer handling procedures. They also could use the information to press for tighter security.
Congress sure isn’t. As National Public Radio recently reported, the Senate rejected a measure that would have required industries to beef up security and begin substituting less deadly chemicals. The industry will be allowed to do its own thing, with no accountability to the public.
And it’s just going to get worse.
Last November, in the wake of Republican electoral success, Congress railroaded to passage a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security. The bill includes what Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., termed the biggest hole in the Freedom of Information Act in 35 years.
The law promises confidentiality to companies that voluntarily submit “information” to the department regarding vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure. This is no ordinary confidentiality; it comes with lead walls. The information could not be used in a lawsuit or government prosecution. Anyone who leaked the information could face criminal penalties – a possibility no other government whistleblower must contend with.
In April, the Homeland Security Department released its proposed rules for implementing the law.
Bad got ugly.
Although the law defines what will be considered critical infrastructure information, the proposed rule indicates the department will let the company submitting information decide whether it meets the act’s definition. Gee, I’m sure they won’t abuse that trust, especially if they’re revealing information that would otherwise subject them to prosecution.
The department also intends to stretch the law farther than Congress intended. Other federal agencies that receive critical infrastructure information from businesses would be required to give it to the Homeland Security Department, where it would become subject to the law even if it was immediately returned to the other agency. This flies directly in the face of legislative intent. During debate on the bill, the House voted down an amendment that would have made all federal agencies subject to the FOI exemption.
SPJ and other journalism groups will submit comments against these anti-openness rules. We will speak against them at every opportunity. I urge you to do the same.
And we will continue to support the Restore FOI Act introduced by Leahy and other senators in March. This bill would still protect records about critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, but it would significantly narrow the range of secrecy. Crimes still could be prosecuted; whistleblowers would not have to weigh their willingness to go to jail against their desire to protect the public.
During SPJ leadership’s visits to Capitol Hill in March, we convinced Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., to sign on as a co-sponsor. We are grateful to him for his support. We will be more grateful when the Senate and House pass the bill and send it to the president for his signature.
By then, we’ll hope he has learned the lesson of SARS and secrecy. “Democracy dies behind closed doors,” Helen Thomas reminds her audiences. There is no democracy in China. If Bush keeps closing doors, it will be endangered here, too.
Robert Leger is president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.