Trying to wrap our mind around the scale of the tragedies in both Burma and China over the last fortnight is difficult from a world away. And it’s not made any easier to digest the immensity of the tragedies when the foreign media is barred from Myanmar, and restricted in China.

In Myanmar, not only are aid workers having trouble gaining access to the mess, so too are foreign journalists being thwarted in their attempts to cover the humanitarian crisis. CNN correspondent Dan Rivers has told the Columbia Journalism Review that he spent his time in Myanmar hiding from the government while trying to file stories, risking his own life and more importantly, the local fixers’ he’d hired to help him:

This is the largest disaster Myanmar’s ever had, I think. I found it pretty incredible that in the middle of this massive crisis—tens of thousands of people dead and many more homeless—they were looking for me. I mean, I wasn’t trying to score points against the government. I was reporting on a natural disaster. I was trying to tell people what was going on and what help was needed. I had been to Myanmar before. I knew this was a very secretive, paranoid regime. But I didn’t realize the extent.

Meanwhile, the quake in the Sichuan province of China has meant unprecedented access for the foreign media in the last week and to some extent, a loosening of restrictions on local media outlets. As Journalism UK reports, the local media has predominantly focused on Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao’s heroic visits to quake-hit areas:

Thursday’s China Daily featured a picture of him holding two forlorn looking girls by the shoulder and quoted him as saying: “I am grandpa Wen Jiabao. You must hold on, child! You will be saved.”

But in between the positive spin on the Chinese goverment’s response to the quake, a few critical reports, namely about the corrupt practices surrounding building permits for shoddily built schools, have slipped through the net.

But the government is now beginning to crack down. As ABC radio reported this morning, foreign journalists, who for the past week have been free to travel and report without restriction, have been told they’ll now need passes to visit the earthquake zone and China’s state CCTV has begun filtering the story around the sanctioned Government version.

But the really interesting media story to come out of the Chinese media’s coverage of the quake and coverage of the cyclone disaster in Myanmar? The role of twitter.

The micro blogging service has been one of the few media sources to consistently trickle updates out of Burma. As Global Voices reports, Burmese bloggers have been using Twitter to give updates and reports about the situation in Myanmar. And in China, Twitter exploded with news and updates about the quake hours before any other news outlet.

As Naomi Klein writes in The Nation, the internet “may be the greatest threat that natural disasters pose to repressive regimes.”  

Making it in (and out of) Myanmar Aid workers aren’t the only ones having trouble getting into Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. The nation’s secretive military regime is withholding visas from journalists and going to unusual lengths to root out those foreign reporters who manage to slip into the country. CNN correspondent Dan Rivers, just back from Yangon, spoke with Mariah Blake about close calls, lucky breaks, and the huge obstacles reporters face when it comes to covering the crisis. MB: How did you find out that you were being hunted? DR: The first indication came when a local fixer [who was working with us unbeknownst to officials] was asked by the government to report any foreigners staying with him. They were specifically looking for me. We were aware before that they weren’t keen on journalists going in to cover the story, but as soon as we heard they were looking for me things started to get a bit more worrying. — Columbia Journalism Review 

Twitter steps up The devastating earthquake in China this week was the latest in a string of incidents that cast the spotlight on the Twitter microblogging service and its value to news organizations. Jeff Jarvis has called Twitter “an important evolutionary step in the rise of blogging,” but it’s really more than that. Twitter redefines the time value of news and is a critical tool in the development of citizen journalism. Individuals with cell phones can now be the eyes and ears of the world if they happen to be on the spot for a news event. Editors Weblog outlines the value of Twitter’s simplicity and open interface, which encourages people to experiment with new applications. Writing on Global Voices, Mong Palatino notes that Twitter became a primary source of information about the recent cyclone disaster in Myanmar. — Newspaper Death Watch

The moral judgement of Western media Recently, I have found it difficult to take seriously Western media coverage of events overseas. Often, the coverage is driven by a mean-spirited desire to discover that ‘they’, too, have problems – and that many of them are far worse than ours. There seems to be an urge to deliver shallow sermons about the failures of morally inferior communities, and an impulse to gloat over their troubles. Within minutes of receiving news about the terrible earthquake in China this week, we were told about the shoddy structures built by corrupt contractors, who were so concerned with taking advantage of the country’s economic miracle that they didn’t bother to make anything earthquake-proof. — Frank Furedi, Spiked

China’s Great Firewall starts to crumble If the Burmese junta avoids mutiny and achieves these goals, it will be thanks largely to China, which has vigorously blocked all attempts at the United Nations for humanitarian intervention in Burma. Inside China, where the central government is going to great lengths to show itself as compassionate, news of this complicity could prove explosive. Will China’s citizens receive this news? They just might. Beijing has, up to now, displayed an awesome determination to censor and monitor all forms of communication. But in the wake of the quake, the notorious “Great Firewall” censoring the Internet is failing badly. Blogs are going wild, and even state reporters are insisting on reporting the news. This may be the greatest threat that natural disasters pose to repressive regimes. For China’s rulers, nothing has been more crucial to maintaining power than the ability to control what people see and hear. If they lose that, neither surveillance cameras nor loudspeakers will be able to help them. — Naomi Klein, The Nation

Let a thousand blogs bloom China is now home to the world’s largest number of Internet and mobile phone users, and their hunger for quake news is forcing the government to let information flow in ways it hasn’t before. A fast-moving network of text messages, instant messages and blogs has been a powerful source of firsthand accounts of the disaster, as well as pleas for help and even passionate criticism of rescue efforts. “I don’t want to use the word transparent, but it’s less censored, an almost free flow of discussion,” said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese Web sites. — Wired

China twittering could crack mainstream? I am the proud possessor of some sort of Iphone (an Orange SPV C550 – fell in the water twice, blowdried it twice, still works fine) and have emails coming to me via this thing the whole day, wherever I am. The reason I am mentioning my phone is because mobility very important in reporting these days. The situation in China underscores this. But it’s not the first time this year that Chinese grassroots efforts have prompted me to keep my phone powered up the whole time. When the protests in Tibet broke out recently, I was hugely impressed at the efforts of a few Twitterers in China to tell the outside world was was going on and created a Google News alert to read the latest news stories citing them. On my IPhone. — ReporTwitters blog

News porn Is anyone else finding the BBC coverage of the Burma cyclone deeply distasteful? Virtually every night since Cyclone Nargis whacked the Irrawaddy Delta, Fiona Bruce has breathlessly announced on The 10 O’Clock News that tonight’s show will contain ‘graphic’, ‘disturbing’, ‘shocking’ or ‘upsetting’ images, and anyone with a sensitive disposition or who is eating their dinner ‘should look away now’. Cue images of dead Burmese families, their bodies bloated and distended from the impact of the floodwaters, or an extreme close-up of a barely surviving old woman, the camera focusing feverishly on her wrinkled mouth as a fly crawls into it. What is this – news, or infotainment for necrophiliacs? — Brendan O’Neil, Spiked

China cracks down Until now, China’s media has been given unprecedented freedom to cover the country’s earthquake disaster. But now the state propaganda machine has moved to curb coverage and ensure that what news does get out is patriotic and uplifting. Foreign journalists, who for the past week have been free to travel and report without restriction, have also been told they will now need special passes to visit the earthquake zone. China’s state CCTV has begun telling the story the way the Government wants it to be told. — ABC News

Tracking the quake on TV and the Internet  I have been tracking the earthquake story on TV and on the internet for more than four days now, and here are some of the things I saw: Day One: Chinese TV has little more than a few fact-based reports about the earthquake. Mostly, it’s business as usual. The internet is exploding with news and information and also with reporting and personal comments in the hyperactive Chinese blogosphere, Twitter, and all the instant messaging services in China. — Pew Research Centre

China state spins it As the catastrophe and media blackout in Burma continues, coverage of the Wenchuan quake in China has taken centre stage. While pictures and information on Burma are scarce, the international media has been given a free hand on the ground in Sichuan province, perhaps as natural disasters offer an unrivalled opportunity for the government to show itself in action. Western media has produced some moving accounts of the tragedy as well as some more critical pieces on how the government has handled the rescue effort. — Journalism UK

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.