Rumors About An Avian Flu Informer

This is the hardest part about interpreting information.  Fact: a man reported a case of disease among geese directly to the Ministry of Agriculture, leading to a massive culling in the local area.  Fact: the man was arrested shortly afterwards for involvement in an extortion case two years ago.

Question:  Was it retaliation?

Answer: Not enough information.  But this is an important matter of public interest.  On one hand, privately, anyone who performed a public service should be absolved of all previous sins.  That would be perversion of justice if there were victims involved in the alleged crime.  Reporting an avian flu outbreak should not be a "Get Out Of Jail" card under any system of justice.  On the other hand, collectively, if this was retaliation at its ugliest peak, then who will ever come forth again?  Truckloads of dead chickens could be shipped to the meat market and nobody would dare say a thing.

How to sort it out?  The root of the problem is: Not enough information.  Maybe someone out there thinks that there is no obligation to respond with respect to "ongoing investigations."  But that is just ceding the entire landscape of discourse to ... RUMORS.  This is definitely not what is taught in propaganda courses and/or public relations. 

(Nanfang Daily)  Unsigned opinion column.  December 4, 2005.

[in translation]

According to Xinanwenbao (note: a newspaper in Anhui province), Qiao Songju who reported the avian flu situation in Tiancheng (Anhui) was recently detained by the police in Gaoyou (Jiangsu) for suspected involvement in an extortion case two years ago.  This piece of news was circulated widely around the Internet.  Although no one can say for sure that this was retaliation, the doubts and speculations were obviously there to be seen.  Perhaps this is a case that the websites and netizens are wrongly suspicious of the properly acting local authorities, but this matter had better be investigated and publicly explained on account of the public attention.

Avian influenza is slowly but surely spreading around the world.  There is new information every day.  Two days ago, there were outbreaks in Xinjiang and Hunan in China, with more than 100,000 birds being culled.  Yesterday, Indonesia confirmed a case of death due to H5N1 avian influenza.  The total number of such deaths have risen up to 64 around the world.  On this disaster-plagued planet, these numbers may not pose a threat.  The true threat is still for the repeated warnings from the World Health Organization from over six months ago: it is inevitable that the avian influenza will mutate.  It is possible for the virus to spread across humans.  If things get out of control, millions will die around the world.

Many countries including China pay serious attention to the WHO warning.  The Minister of Health Gao Qiang said at the November 30 press conference, "The control of the avian flu in China has gone past blue alert into yellow alert, and the effective control of avian flu is important among important things."  With this backdrop, the actions of Qiao Songju who reported the Tiancheng (Anhui) outbreak did not appear to have received attention.  The relevant departments did not publicly acknowledge him and there was no reward.  If he actually committed a crime, he should not escape punishment; but if he was getting retaliation, then that would be insufferable.

According to many news reports, in mid-October, Qiao Songju's father received a telephone call from Anhui friend and geese breeder Ma Zhengzhao.  Ma said that his geese were sick and he wanted to sell them to Jiangsu.  When Qiao Songju found out, he tried to persuade Ma not to and also reported the disease situation to the Ministry of Agriculture.  The Ministry quickly sent someone out there to investigate and the local government paid a high degree of attention.  More than 100,000 fowls were culled, cremated and buried.  More than 100,000 other fowls were vaccinated as well.  The WHO gave a high rating to the timely control of the Anhui outbreak.  On October 24 when the Ministry of Agriculture announced the news, Qiao Songju was even meeting Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary Department director Jia Youling in Beijing.

The Ministry of Agriculture did not deny these reports, but it also did not give Qiao Songju any reward (only Qiao privately told reporters that he declined the reward from the Ministry of Agriculture).  The local authorities refused to admit it, and insisted that the local government reported the outbreak to the Ministry of Agriculture themselves.  But according to the report in "People of the Era Weekly Magazine", on the night when the investigating team from the Ministry of Agriculture arrived in Anhui, the Tiancheng city officials immediately found Ma Zhengzhao and others and asked "why did they directly reported the information to the Ministry of Agriculture."  They also said that it would be easier if Ma had not reported it that way.  They also offered him a sum of money to get out of Tiancheng immediately.  On October 26, two days after the outbreak was announced, the local police took Qiao Songju in for questioning: "How much did you get from the Ministry of Agriculture?  Who told you to report in?  Do you know that doing so has serious consequences?"

Until the relevant parties have investigated and confirmed the facts, we do not regard being detained for involvement in an extortion case as the "serious consequence" for Qiao Songju reporting the outbreak.  Yet, what is for certain is that if there is no public explanation about this matter so that the rumors can continue to spread everywhere, then when another similar incident occurs there, it would require a great deal more courage for villages to report in.

Having an investigation about Qiao Songju's detention and giving a public explanation not only concerns individual justice, but it also affects prevention of avian flu.  If as described by Qiao Songju to the reporters, most of the geese and duck farmers are not wealthy and even very impoverished villagers.  Since the local governments do not rigorously follow the compensation plan required by the State Council, it is easy to imagine how they will often refuse to report the outbreak directly because they want to secretly sell the fowls to the outside.  Within the village social and familial networks and within the strategic plans of the local governments for economic development, the informers are subjected to tremendous pressures.  With this background, it is especially important to encourage reporting.

This is not a profound principle.  The Ministry of Agriculture officials know that.  According to the recently drafted <<Handling Rules for Animals Dead From Diseases Or Unknown Causes (Trial)>>, the Ministry of Agriculture required that serious outbreaks must be reported on a timely basis, and they also required the local authorities to set up reporting systems with appropriate rewards given to those who turn in useful information.

For this, we believe that the Ministry of Agriculture should quickly establish: Was Qiao Songju someone who reported useful information?  If so, then what kind of reward should he receive?  Meanwhile, the Public Security Bureau should also explain quickly: Did Qiao Songju receive retaliation as a result of his report?  If not, then what crime did he commit and what is the appropriate punishment?  If the public can learn the truth, then they won't believe in the rumors.