As the world watched the fireworks of the Beijing Games' opening ceremony, the seeds of China's latest deadly public health disaster were being sown. This latest chapter in the toxic product scandals -- following toy train sets, dog food and dumplings -- is a sobering reminder of the ongoing public-health threat posed by Beijing's media censorship.
On Aug. 2, China's dairy product giant Sanlu Group asked government officials in Hebei province to "increase control and coordination of the media" that tried to report on the poisoning of infants with Sanlu's toxin-laced milk powder formula. Beijing had already decreed that along with Tibetan independence and public protests, "all food safety issues" were "off limits" for domestic news coverage during the Olympics.
Sanlu's appeal worked. China's state-controlled media didn't break the story until Sept. 10 -- after New Zealand demanded that China go public on illnesses related to the tainted formula. The contaminated milk, which causes kidney stones and can be fatal, has since been found in dairy products from some 20 companies.
Even as more babies got sick, China's censors still allowed only carefully vetted articles on the issue by the official news agency Xinhua. Beijing warned Web monitors that any mention of the issue needed to be "monitored and controlled." Meanwhile, the melamine-spiked milk made its way into China's export chain, prompting dozens of countries to ban Chinese milk imports.
In both the AIDS and SARS health crises, Beijing's stifling of news coverage allowed the epidemics to expand. This time, the cover-up has contributed to the sickening of 53,000 infants, the deaths of four children and the dismissal of China's food-and-product safety chief. The final human toll may be much higher -- Beijing is refusing to release updated statistics.
Beijing has made tentative moves toward loosening its choke hold on reporting. In the immediate aftermath of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, it allowed both domestic and foreign media a previously unknown level of freedom to report on the devastation. Within weeks, however, that brief window of tolerance closed and the government reimposed strict controls on reporting from the quake zone.
Beijing is scheduled to close another important window of media freedom on Oct. 17, when Olympics-related temporary rules that have allowed foreign media to talk to any consenting interviewee without government permission are to expire. The rules have been poorly implemented -- Human Rights Watch has documented numerous incidents of harassment, detentions and even death threats to foreign reporters. Yet the regulatory change was a step in the right direction and raised hopes that Beijing recognizes, if reluctantly, the need for media freedom.
By permanently extending these regulations -- and more important, granting local journalists the same rights -- Beijing could make a small step toward ensuring the timely and effective identification and resolution of future public-health crises.
Phelim Kine is an Asia-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.