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Two US filmmakers denied visas, journalists harassed

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders deplores the Chinese government's refusal to issue visas to two US filmmakers, Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, thereby preventing them from attending the 3 September 2009 screening of their documentary about the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province," at the Beijing Independent Film Festival.

The film ( ) examines the collapse of many schools in the earthquake and the difficulties encountered by the families of the victims in addressing their complaints to the government.

"Their kids had been buried when the school collapsed," Alpert said in a recent interview, explaining a scene in the documentary ( ). "In their town, almost all the other buildings remained standing (. . .) And the parents began asking why the school collapsed. Was it shoddy construction? Was it corruption? And nobody gave them any answer. They started to get angry and started marching."

Reporters Without Borders said: "While screening the documentary at a Beijing festival is laudable, denying visas to its two American makers is absurd. It is linked to the growing difficulties for foreign journalists and Chinese human rights activists to work in the areas affected by the earthquake. The openness displayed at the time of the quake is now unfortunately over."

Officials at the Chinese consulate in New York offered Alpert and O'Neill no explanation for the refusal to give them visas late last week but it was almost certainly linked to their film about the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the southwestern province of Sichuan on 12 May 2008 and their work with its victims.

Alpert and O'Neill arrived in Fuxin, near the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, 10 days after the earthquake. O'Neill told Reporters Without Borders about the grief and anger of the parents of children who were killed when Fuxin School No. 2 collapsed. "By the end of the week, we felt that the police were monitoring all the school sites and all the parents we were speaking with," he said, adding: "We decided to send a copy of our footage out of the country."

They sent the footage to HBO, the network for which they made the documentary. The decision was fortuitous because on their return to Chengdu: "We were surprised to be surrounded by approximately 30 plainclothes police men and women (. . .) We spent the next 8 hours at the Chengdu police headquarters where we were interrogated."

O'Neill hailed the courage and determination of the Beijing Independent Film Festival's organisers. "The parents had been hoping that our presence [at the festival] might force the authorities to take a public position on the causes of their children's deaths."

Eighteen months later, acting as a spokesperson for the families of the victims has become very risky. Huang Qi, a Chinese cyber-dissident who criticised the organisation of relief aid on his website, has been jailed since June 2008 on a charge of "illegal possession of state secrets."

Blogger Tan Zuoren has been held since 28 March on a charge of "inciting state subversion" for trying to calculate the number of children killed in the quake, for which no official figure has ever been given. Police prevented two Hong Kong journalists, Wong Ka-yu and Wu Siu-wing, from covering the opening of his trial in Chengdu on 12 August by not letting them leave their hotel. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who had wanted to testify in his favour, was also prevented from leaving his hotel.

Many foreign journalists were manhandled and expelled from the worst-hit areas on the first anniversary of the earthquake.

Meanwhile, with less than a month to go to celebrations planned for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October, censorship is increasing.

The Propaganda Department has ordered the Chinese media to carry only the official news agency Xinhua's version of the situation on the Burmese border, where around 30,000 Burmese civilians have reportedly fled the country following clashes between Burmese government forces and rebel groups. Foreign journalists have been prevented from entering refugee camps on the Chinese side of the border.

The Communist Party's censors also instructed the leading news media not to cover the recent protests and rioting about serious cases of pollution in the southern provinces of Fujian and Yunnan.

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