Chinese officials will soon be legally obliged to provide accurate and timely information on public emergencies, while media organizations that publish false reports could lose their business licenses under a new law passed on Thursday.
The Emergency Response Law passed by the national legislature on Thursday is aimed at improving handling of industrial accidents, natural disasters, health and public security hazards.
With seven chapters and 70 clauses, the law will be effective from Nov. 1.
Four colors of emergency declaration (blue, yellow, orange and red) will be used to indicate the hazard level, with "red" signaling the most serious situation.
The new law would help minimize losses and prevent minor mishaps from turning into major public crises, lawmakers said.
It bans the fabrication and spreading of false information on accidents and disasters and requires governments to provide accurate and timely information.
"People's governments in charge of coping with an emergency should provide coordinated, accurate and timely information on the emergency and its development," it says.
The law also states that "units and individuals are prohibited from fabricating or spreading false information regarding emergencies and government efforts to cope with emergencies".
Offenders will be warned, it says. Media organizations or web companies could lose their business licenses if their offences lead to serious consequences.
Government officials will incur administrative punishment for providing inaccurate information, says the law.
Behavior that contravenes public security management rules or criminal statutes will be prosecuted, it says.
To curb the rising number of explosive accidents, the law requires "coal mines, construction sites, and work units that produce, deal with, transport, stockpile and use explosives, combustible and hazardous chemicals and radioactive material production must establish detailed emergency plans and launch inspections at sites where hazardous materials are produced and stored so as to eliminate possible risks and avoid emergencies".
The law requires "harsh punishments for looting of properties during emergencies and for disrupting emergency response work".
The law says when extremely serious emergencies occur, which severely threaten life and property, state security, public security, environmental security or public order, which are not covered by the provisions in the law, the NPC Standing Committee or the State Council can declare a "state of emergency" in accordance with the Constitution and the law.
The first version of the draft law submitted in June 2006 included the provision that "news media that irregularly report the development and handling of emergencies without authorization, or release fraudulent reports will be fined from 50,000 yuan (6,250 U.S. dollars) to 100,000 yuan, if the reports lead to serious consequences".
The provision was cut from the law when it was submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for the second reading in June this year after heated debate among lawmakers and the public, many of whom argued it could be misused by government bodies to stall the release of emergency information.
Frequent natural disasters and industrial accidents have caused huge losses of life and property in China.
Police records show 5.61 million sudden natural and industrial emergencies were reported in 2004, leaving 210,000 people dead and 1.75 million injured. Direct economic losses topped 450 billion yuan (56.3 billion U.S. dollars).
Many officials have resigned or been dismissed for their inability to control emergency situations, including former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, sacked for the SARS cover-up in 2003, and former Environment Minister Xie Zhenhua, who quit in 2005 for mishandling of the Songhua River pollution incident.