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China censors CNN SARS report

From Jaime FlorCruz

Laurie Garrett said China was still giving a blurred picture of the true SARS situation there.
Laurie Garrett said China was still giving a blurred picture of the true SARS situation there.

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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Chinese censors have blocked the airing of a CNN International interview that criticized the government's handling of the SARS epidemic, despite a government pledge to be more open with information.

The seven-minute segment was part of CNN's 30-minute "Insight" program. Newsday reporter Laurie Garrett, author of "The Coming Plague," commented on the decrepit state of China's public health system.

Garrett accused the government of ordering doctors to underreport the number of patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The flu-like disease is believed to have originated in southern China late last year.

When asked about the censorship, a Chinese official said, "The coverage positions a negative coverage of China."

China requires foreign broadcasters to use a designated Chinese satellite to transmit signals into the country.

A seven-second delay between the time signals reach the satellite and the time they are retransmitted to cable viewers allows censors to selectively black out programming.

The censorship process predates the SARS epidemic.

In recent months, many CNN reports on controversial government issues -- human rights, Tibet, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement -- have been blacked out.

"We regret the Chinese action and we are checking the circumstances and details of the interruption," a CNN spokesman said. "In the meantime, we will continue reporting forthrightly and responsibly on SARS and other important matters."

Other networks such as the BBC also have experienced censorship in recent months.

Since the first SARS cases were reported in November, government officials covered up all reports about SARS in China, even as the epidemic was spreading in Beijing and other provinces.

In early April, health officials insisted the epidemic was under "effective control." Beijing, they said, had only 37 cases.

Three weeks later, the government acknowledged it had underreported SARS cases, and the Beijing mayor and the Chinese health minister were fired.

Since then, top leaders have gamely worked to make up for lost time, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ordered that all SARS information be made public.

"Government and health officials who cover up, delay reporting or report false figures will be demoted or sacked," he said.

Still, earlier this month, a top World Health Organization official criticized China for hindering the agency's efforts to control the deadly SARS outbreak.

Increased communication among the 27 countries dealing with SARS has been a key factor in controlling the disease's spread, David Heymann, director for communicable diseases at WHO, told a U.S. House subcommittee Wednesday. China, so far, he said, has not been very helpful.

Wednesday, China reported its lowest daily increase in new SARS cases in weeks, amid government claims that the worst of the disease is past.

The number of cases in mainland China rose by 55 to 5,124. Beijing accounted for 39 of the new cases, continuing its decline in fresh cases.

But experts at the World Health Organization have said that it is too early to claim the virus has been contained in China.

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