A Chinese state-owned newspaper has called for greater transparency from a police authority in the southwest of the country after five medical workers were punished on a vague offence related to the spreading of information about the coronavirus outbreak.
Police in Wenshan, Yunnan province, said on Thursday that the five had caused “bad effects” by collecting and circulating information and images about the outbreak, which has already claimed more than 720 lives.
Three people took advantage of their jobs to take photographs of materials related to coronavirus patients, while the two others shared that information on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging platform, police said.
They did not elaborate on the nature of the images or provide any more information about the suspects, all five of whom were fined 500 yuan (US$70), with four of them also given 10 days’ detention.
News of the crackdown in Wenshan came just a day after the public outpouring of grief and anger at the death of Li Wenliang, the young doctor who had been on the front line of the fight against the new coronavirus.
Li died in the early hours of Friday morning after succumbing to the infection, and just over a month after he had been formally reprimanded by the police for trying to warn the world of the dangers it posed.
In an unusual reaction to the charges brought in Wenshan, Health Times, a newspaper under the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, published a commentary on Friday questioning the police’s actions.
Authorities in the city should make public exactly what information the five medical workers leaked, it said.
Even though the information they shared might have been about patients or frontline efforts to battle the outbreak, their actions were neither malicious nor did they cause any “bad effects”, it said.
Rather, it said, they might have been doing the public a service.
News of the detentions also triggered an angry reaction on China’s social networks. Following the double backlash, the Wenshan police bureau issued a notice on Friday night saying that the detentions had been suspended, though again it did not elaborate.
Despite the newspaper’s reaction, China’s censors are showing no signs of loosening their vice-like grip on online content related to the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, the Cyberspace Administration of China – the nation’s top internet watchdog – ordered the removal from app stores of Pipi Gaoxiao, a platform designed by technology firm ByteDance for sharing short videos, saying it was being used to “spread panic”.
The agency also imposed “special supervision measures” on Sina Weibo, Tencent, ByteDance and other internet companies, shut down a number of WeChat accounts for “illegally reporting activities”, and ordered Baidu and Huxiu to edit some of their content.
At a meeting of the Politburo on Monday, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body called for a strengthening of controls on the media’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, saying public opinion should be guided towards the country’s efforts to fight the epidemic.
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This article Coronavirus: China’s state media calls for police to explain charges brought against ‘rumour-mongers’ first appeared on South China Morning Post