Chinese nationalists on Weibo, China’s Twitter, have been having a field day over the February 3 derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio.
Five of the derailed Norfolk Southern train’s cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a volatile toxic substance that is an explosion hazard. As the derailment site blazed, authorities evacuated residents and carried out a “controlled release” of the highly flammable vinyl chloride, resulting in a dramatic plume of black smoke.
Weibo posts with the hashtag “Ohio” had accumulated more than 850 million views as of February 17. State media accounts and nationalistic influencers disseminated hashtags baselessly accusing the U.S media of “going silent” about the incident or working with the U.S. government to cover it up.
A hashtag created by the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily seized on the detention of a reporter at a press conference on the derailment, reading:
“African-American journalist forcibly arrested for reporting the Ohio accident.”
One influencer with 2.6 million followers wrote:
“Many U.S. netizens who have common sense are freaking out right now, but the U.S. government is arresting journalists and shooting balloons, deliberately reducing public attention [to the accident] and diverting societal concerns…”
Those hashtags are misleading.
The U.S. government is not arresting journalists for their coverage of the disaster or suppressing information about the accident’s environmental and safety impact. Nor is the U.S. media “silent” about the topic.
As one Weibo user put it: “If the [U.S.] government really wanted to avoid [talking about] this accident, why [is it] summoning all the reporters to hold a press conference?”
The incident in which a reporter for NewsNation, Evan Lambert, was detained occurred during a February 8 press conference in East Palestine by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. Law enforcement personnel detained Lambert for five hours, charging him with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing.
The charges against Lambert were dropped on February 15.
NewsNation, citing a photographer who was with Lambert at the scene, Preston Swigart, reported that DeWine’s news conference started two hours late and that Lambert had to go live while the governor was already speaking.
Law enforcement officers asked Lambert to stop talking, and, after he finished his broadcast, he was asked to leave the event and then forcibly removed.
Multiple U.S. media outlets covered and released video footage of the incident.
CBS News reported that “Lambert had a ‘heated conversation’ with Maj. Gen. John Harris Jr., the leader of the Ohio National Guard” before his arrest:
“Body camera footage reviewed by CBS Pittsburgh shows that Harris reportedly spoke with a camera operator as a state trooper motioned to stop the live shot, then confronted Lambert and pushed him with one hand in the chest. Lambert was also pointing and talking to Harris. A state trooper intervened, stepping between the two men and moving away the commander.”
CBS Pittsburgh reported that Lambert was asked to leave after the altercation but refused, saying that he was allowed there and should be able to do his job. He was eventually pushed to the floor and handcuffed.
Swigart told NewsNation:
“From their standpoint, he didn’t obey orders. Gymnasiums are echoey and loud and sound kind of carries, so I’m guessing that they just didn’t like the fact that there was sound competing with the governor speaking, even though it was all the way at the other end of the room.”
DeWine later said he had not ordered Lambert’s arrest and that reporters have “every right” to report during press conferences.
On February 15, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced that the charges against Lambert had been dismissed:
“The reporter was lawfully present at a press conference called by the Governor of the state. His conduct was consistent with the purpose of the event and his role as a reporter.
“Regardless of the intent, arresting a journalist reporting at a press conference is a serious matter. Ohio protects a free press under its constitution, and state officials should remember to exercise a heightened level of restraint in using arrest powers.”
China, on the other hand, has systemically arrested journalists who investigate issues that could reflect negatively on Beijing. It ranked 175th out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2022 World Press Freedom Index.
RSF named China the world's largest captor of journalists with at least 113 detained.