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Open letter to WHO director about contaminated milk powder scandal

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 1 October 2008 RSF letter to World Health Organisation Director General Margaret Chan:

Dr. Margaret Chan
Director-General
World Health Organisation
Avenue Appia 20
1211 Geneva 27
Switzerland

Dear Director-General,

You have often spoken publicly of the importance of the free flow of information about public health issues. The latest developments in the Chinese contaminated milk powder scandal show very clearly that the system of censorship imposed by the Chinese government has had a disastrous impact on the health of tens of thousands of new-born babies in China and other countries to which its milk products are exported. Many babies have been poisoned because journalists and researchers were unable to publish their information.

An official in your organisation has stressed to the media the importance of a "culture of openness and rapid reporting" in this kind of crisis. For your part, you have said Asian woman should breast-feed rather than use powdered milk products, but that does not seem to be an adequate response to this tragic situation.

How can you accept that the World Health Organisation was not notified until 11 September of the toxicity of these products although information had been circulating since December 2007? As early as last July, He Feng, an investigative journalist with a weekly in southern China, had gathered detailed information on a wave of hospitalisation of babies. But the Chinese government, through the Propaganda Department, imposed a ban on publishing negative information about food scandals before and during the Olympic Games. So He Feng's editor decided not to publish his information for fear of being punished by the authorities.

Just before the Olympic Games, the Propaganda Department sent a list of 21 banned subjects to the news media. One of them (point 8) was food safety. "All subjects linked to food safety, such as mineral water causing cancer, are off-limits," the directive said.

The authorities have even suppressed a blog entry by Fu Jianfeng, He Feng's editor, who did not dare publish what they had learned. "I sensed that this was going to be a huge public health disaster," Fu wrote in the censored post.

We thought the Chinese authorities and the WHO had learned the lesson of the SARS crisis, which the authorities covered up for several months by censoring the press.

To our great regret, the highest authorities in Beijing continue to impose censorship on public health subjects. We urge you to speak out publicly against these repressive and dangerous practices as they are harmful to the health of both Chinese citizens and the population of neighbouring countries.

Your organisation has published figures that show the scale of the harm cause by the tainted milk scandal: more than 54,000 children have been treated, 12,000 have been hospitalised and at least four have died.

At the same time, the WHO has publicly congratulated itself on its ability to react to this crisis and has hailed the cooperation it has been receiving from the Chinese authorities in all areas, including its "regular updates." Should not a sterner comment have been made to the Chinese government for continuing to prioritise news control at the expense of its citizens' health?

As we know you are committed to press freedom, we urge you to intercede with the authorities in Beijing as quickly as possible on this matter.

I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard
Secretary-General

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