The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act

In September of last year, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R) introduced H.R. 2899 – the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act of 2011, now being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives. If the bill were to be passed, it would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, allowing the U.S. government to revoke and limit visas issued to journalists working for China’s state media to match the number of visas issued to U.S. government-employed reporters in China. A press release from Rohrabacher’s office reports his pitch of the bill:

“There is a very alarming disparity between the number of Chinese state media workers whom we grant visas to and the number of visas the Chinese grant to their American counterparts,” said Rohrabacher.

“We would welcome any free and independent Chinese reporters if such a thing existed. Every one of these reporters is an agent of the Chinese government and works for a news organization under control of the Communist Party in China. Chinese news agencies operating in the USA are not subject to censorship or purposeful disruption and they are free to broadcast as much communist propaganda as they like on U.S. soil.”

“By contrast, our two U.S. correspondents in China are routinely harassed by Chinese police and have been assaulted and detained by Chinese officials seeking to block their work. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have been regularly jammed by the Communist Chinese for years.”

While Rohrabacker’s rhetoric effectively evokes thawed Cold War tension during a time of political and economic anxiety, it fails to note an important difference between the media landscapes of China and the U.S. – the role of state-owned media. In the first post of a three-part series on H.R. 2899, China Law and Policy explains this difference, and reports other major problems with this bill:

The Act has many problems.  First, it solely focuses on China, giving it the air of a Chinese Exclusion Act.  China is not the only country which denies foreign journalists visas – a quick review of the worst countries for journalists on Reporters Without Borders’ website reveals that Burma, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea similarly deny foreign journalists visas.  But this Act is exclusively about China.

Second, the rhetoric by the Act’s proponents leads one to believe that they are more motivated by a Cold War mentality than a true concern about U.S. journalists’ access in China.   Rep. Rohrabacher’s testimony in support of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is filled with red herrings concerning Confucius Institutes, billboards in Times Square, and the Chinese purchase of AMC movie theaters (in order to flood the US with Chinese propaganda films).  Testimony by John Lenczowski focused more on Russian spies in the US Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War than the actual treatment of U.S. journalists in China today.

Third, passage of the Act could lead to even worse retaliation by China.  China repeatedly harasses the two VOA reporters in China (see Nick Zahn’s testimony, p. 5-6) and it has consistently denied visas to RFA reporters.  Perhaps the most famous incident was when the Chinese government rescinded the RFA reporters’ visas only days before they were to accompany President Clinton on his 1998 trip to China.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also voiced similar concern with the proposed policy after initial discussion began in the House of Representatives last month:

CPJ’s many objections to China’s media policies, including its approach to foreign media, are well documented. But we don’t believe that the best response to press freedom restrictions in China is to implement press freedom restrictions in the U.S. We don’t approve of the use of specific visas for journalists in the first place, although we recognize that it is a widespread practice. In an ideal world, we would see as many journalists as possible in all countries, moving as freely as possible across borders.

[…]Media restrictions in China make the country a poor candidate for a mature partnership on economic or security issues, and must be addressed if the two countries are to move forward. The visa imbalance between China and the United States does seem unfair, and should be dealt with frankly and forcefully in the context of those many shortcomings. But the U.S., or any country, should not threaten to drive possibly hundreds of journalists from within its borders for any reason. Such a move might feed some people’s sense of justice, but would be short-sighted, counterproductive, and contradict one of the United States’ cornerstone liberties. The Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement should find a better way to solve this problem.

Part 2 of China Law and Policy’s series focuses on how the proposed bill is an ineffective policy mechanism to deal with the broader issue: visa restrictions facing foreign journalists in China, regardless of whether their paycheck comes from the government or the market:

Putting aside the shrill rhetoric surrounding the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and the fact that it only deals with the harassment of a small segment of U.S. journalists in China (the VOA and RFA reporters), the Act does draw attention to an increasingly problematic issue: the Chinese governments harassment of foreign journalists through the visa process.  It also raises the question: what should the U.S. government be doing about this harassment?

Stay tuned for part 3 of China Law and Policy‘s series.

For more on journalists in China and the regulations they face, see prior CDT coverage.