Mr. Boelinger said of Mr. Brant: “I don’t know what would have happened had it really been him. The media environment in China right now is frightening.”
The BBC issued a statement on Tuesday, calling on the Chinese government to take immediate action to stop the attacks on journalists.
Since Sunday, the China-based staff for the BBC, The Los Angeles Times and others have received death threats and intimidating messages and calls, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Al Jazeera’s crew were followed and filmed while reporting outside a Zhengzhou subway station, while journalists for The Associated Press were stopped and reported to the police during filming in a public area. Journalists reporting on a submerged tunnel for the news agency Agence France-Presse were forced to delete footage by hostile residents and surrounded by several dozen men, according to the correspondents’ group.
When a few passers-by saw journalists for The New York Times conducting interviews on the streets of Zhengzhou earlier this week, they yelled at interviewees not to talk, effectively ending the conversations.
“Of course, in this age, journalists will face abuse on social media, unfortunately,” William Nee of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, wrote on Twitter. “But it is dangerous when the State fuels these xenophobic worldviews to achieve its own political ends, instead of creating an enabling environment for reporting.”
It is impossible to explain why so many ordinary Chinese seemed eager to attack foreign journalists covering the floods. It was a serious natural disaster and probably difficult for any city to handle. But it serves the public interest to understand whether any deaths could have been avoided.
Some people probably took their cues from the government. Last week, the Zhengzhou government quickly posted banners on the sides of the submerged tunnel saying that gawking could damage the “image” of the city.