By Sue-Lin Wong
XINMO, China (Reuters) - Several Chinese journalists say they were pulled off reporting on the weekend's landslide in Sichuan on government orders as part of what they called increasing curbs on coverage of natural disasters under President Xi Jinping.
At least 73 people are missing and 10 people are confirmed to have been killed after the landslide engulfed Xinmo village in the mountainous southwestern province early on Saturday, according to the latest official figures on Wednesday.
The publicity department of the Communist Party's central committee declined to comment on specific questions from Reuters about how it handled media coverage of the disaster, but offered a statement:
"Chinese media published a large number of reports about the landslide. It has become commonplace for Chinese media to promptly and actively publish information when breaking news occurs."
However, half a dozen Chinese journalists covering the disaster told Reuters they were recalled on Sunday night by editors who said they had received orders from the publicity department to stop reporting on the event.
"Gone are the days of being able to freely report on natural disasters," said a journalist from an official party newspaper. All of the Chinese journalists Reuters spoke to for this story asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs.
"When I covered the 2008 Sichuan earthquake I was able to go anywhere in the earthquake site, interview anyone and report on any story I wanted. This time around, I wasn't even allowed into the rescue area, we were just given press releases (from the government) to write up."
Nearly 70,000 people died in the 2008 earthquake, the epicenter of which was in Wenchuan county, not far from Xinmo.
PROTECTING THE PARTY
President Xi has overseen a drive to place the Communist Party back at the center of China's media, academia and charities, while reining in news organizations and research bodies and detaining rights lawyers.
"All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party's will and its propositions and protect the Party's authority and unity," Xi was quoted as saying while visiting the three big state news agencies in February 2016.
The government's position on the media is that it guarantees freedom of expression but that the media has to operate in accordance with the law.
News about the landslide was pushed down the agenda of many major Chinese news organizations monitored by Reuters at the weekend. State broadcaster CCTV ran its story almost twenty minutes into the Saturday night news, after stories about poverty alleviation and Xi's visit to a military base.
Much of the coverage in the days since the landslide has focused on the heroic role of the rescue dogs and the types of food served to people involved in rescue efforts.
The Chinese language version of an article in leading business magazine Caixin which questioned the official view that the landslide was an unavoidable disaster was deleted late on Monday, according to China Digital Times, an online watchdog based in Berkeley, California.
A less-detailed English language version of the story was still available on the magazine's global site.
Villagers were quoted in the article as saying the government was partially to blame for the landslide because it did nothing after locals reported a large fissure had formed in the mountainside above them after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Caixin was not immediately available for comment.
Unlike the 2008 earthquake, which was widely dispersed and fell under the control of several different local governments, there is only one road in and out of Xinmo which is under the control of a single local government.
About 100 relatives and villagers who were away when the landslide occurred met government officials at a primary school on Monday to complain about the lack of information and access to Xinmo. They were eventually allowed back.
A journalist at a state-backed Chinese media organization said he had planned to accompany the group back to Xinmo but was deterred from going by his own editors.
"Our big boss called me specifically to tell me we had to leave today and stop reporting," he told Reuters.
After another earthquake in Sichuan in 2013, People's Liberation Army soldiers invited Reuters reporters to eat lunch with them near the disaster zone and armed police offered journalists rides to get closer to the epicenter.
But on Sunday, many Chinese and foreign news organizations, including Reuters, were blocked by police from accessing the site. Efforts to get government help were thwarted.
"I am just a tiny foot soldier, I cannot help you," said a local official surnamed Yang who was listed online as the site's press liaison, before he hung up the phone.
Reuters journalists who made it to the area were confronted by police officers who herded them out on foot, then followed the Reuters vehicle in two police cars and a van to nearby Diexi town. The journalists were escorted by a cohort of about 20 police to the local publicity office which instructed them to drive back to the capital of Sichuan.
"We have a press center in a hotel in Chengdu, you can get all the information you need there," said Zhang Ya, a local publicity official.
(For a graphic on landslide in China, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2t4A3FU)
(Additional reporting by the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)