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Beating death of journalist spurs inquiry

China's Hu orders a prompt investigation of the killing, which has sparked an outcry from media groups.

January 25, 2007|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Lan Chengzhang could have been just another crime statistic.

But in a rare move, Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday ordered a speedy investigation of the killing of the 34-year-old Chinese journalist, who was attacked while on his way to meet the owner of an illegal coal mine in northern China.

Lan's beating death this month triggered protests from domestic and international media groups, which have demanded stronger protections for Chinese journalists, who face significant government restraints and often harrowing conditions.

Hu's intervention was "very unusual," noted Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the international relations school at People's University in Beijing.

Politburo standing member Li Changchun and Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang joined the president's call for a speedy and thorough investigation of the death, according to a report Wednesday by the official China News Service.

Jin speculated that China's top leaders were attempting to demonstrate to the outside world, and domestic critics, that they were serious about protecting freedom of the press, particularly when it intersects with the booming mine industry. China is trying to shed its reputation for having the world's most dangerous coal mines, where last year it lost 4,746 workers to blasts, floods and other accidents.

Jin said Wednesday's action also represented a bit of central government muscle-flexing, delivering a message to local officials and mine owners that they were not above the law.

Lan's slaying has exacerbated tensions between the Chinese government and the press, which has become far more aggressive about reporting on corruption and crime in recent years.

Though Chinese journalists enjoy greater freedom than in the past, the government still controls the content of domestic media outlets. This week, it ordered satellite television channels to limit prime-time programming to "ethically inspiring TV dramas" and to remove imported cartoons or programs featuring crime, guns, sex, love affairs or divorces.

The government also polices the Web and blocks access to many overseas Internet sites. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based journalists' rights group, was in Beijing this week to lobby the government to release journalists and "cyber-dissidents" being held in Chinese jails.

Investigative journalism has proved dangerous in China. Last year, two journalists died after being beaten by police, according to the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based organization. In a statement issued after Lan's death, the group urged China's leaders to "do everything in their power to make sure that the perpetrators of such crimes are brought to justice according to international standards."

The motives for Lan's killing are unclear. China's thriving economy has created a huge demand for energy, leading to a sudden increase in the number of small, illegal mines.

Lan and a colleague were on their way to meet Hou Zhenrun, the owner of an unlicensed coal mine, on Jan. 10 when they were attacked by a mob. Lan, who worked for China Trade News, was taken to a hospital and died the next day of a brain hemorrhage.

Chinese journalists who went to investigate the attack outside the city of Datong, in northern Shanxi province, were prevented from entering the hospital, leading to a clash with the police, according to the International Press Institute. Local officials asserted that Lan was not a reporter and said he was trying to blackmail the mine owner in exchange for not reporting on the facility's illegal status.

Late Tuesday, local officials said at a news conference that Hou, who surrendered to authorities last week, had confessed to organizing the attack. They also said that Lan was "planning to extort" money from the mine owner.

But Yuen-ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong, questioned the efforts to paint Lan as a "fake journalist."

"I fully expect a full disclosure on what exactly happened and who's behind the thugs," she said. "Is the local government trying to cover something up?"

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evelyn.iritani@latimes.com

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