Foreign Journalists Face Increasing Pressure

A report released last week by PEN International looks at the treatment of foreign journalists in China, many of whom have faced harassment, interference with their reporting, and delays in visa processing or even expulsion for reporting on topics deemed untouchable by the government. At recent protests in Wukan, Guangdong, foreign journalists and those from Hong Kong were expelled from the area, detained, and ultimately blamed for the unrest. Ian Johnson reports on the PEN report for The New York Times:

A report released on Thursday by PEN America, a writers’ group based in New York, tries to quantify how difficult it has become for journalists to get the facts out of China. Its conclusion: The estimated 700 foreign journalists in China from 50 countries “face more restrictions now than at any other time in recent history.” The report also highlighted several instances of what it said were companies compromising editorial standards to do business in China.

The group surveyed more than three dozen journalists, as well as local Chinese employees of foreign outlets, experts, media groups and others to compile the 76-page report. PEN America has often addressed freedom of expression in China, usually concerning Chinese writers. Its executive director, Suzanne Nossel, said in an interview that it was also important to highlight challenges faced by foreigners trying to report on China.

“Of course, we can’t compare this to the pressures felt by Chinese writers,” Ms. Nossel said. “But we are dependent on the critical link that play. They are an important piece of the puzzle of understanding China.”

The report cited several areas of concern, including increased harassment of foreign journalists working in sensitive places, like Tibet and Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China. Reporters interviewed said they were often videotaped while on assignment, and sometimes followed so closely that they could not interview residents. [Source]

The report itself discusses the topics most likely to generate a backlash from authorities:

Although the Chinese government does not publicly acknowledge any topic of news coverage to be off-limits entirely for foreign news media, journalists told PEN America that particular topics are likely to elicit reprisals from authorities. The most sensitive stories are those that expose the wealth of senior leaders or their families (as outlined below in this report in the case studies of Bloomberg News and The New York Times) as well as stories that describe President Xi Jinping in terms officials deem unflattering.

China-based journalists told PEN America that the Chinese government has become increasingly displeased with the international media’s coverage of President Xi, particularly stories that compare Xi to Mao Zedong or a empt to describe Xi’s domestic support as a cult of personality. “[The government has] become so much more sensitive over the last three years about reporting on the leadership,” said one Beijing-based bureau chief, “particularly about reporting on Xi Jinping. It approaches a kind of Chinese version of lèse-majesté,” the bureau chief concluded, referring to laws that ban insults against a country’s king.

Tom Mitchell, the Beijing Bureau Chief at the Financial Times, told PEN America that in February, after the FT published a story that referred to Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Chinese Communist Party, MOFA officials called one of Mitchell’s colleagues (Mitchell was on leave) and requested the newspaper not refer to Xi using such terminology. The term “core” had, in the minds of Chinese officials, become associated with the claim that Xi was governing based on a cult of personality; such cults of personality are not tolerated within the Communist Party. Mitchell said other news agencies whose articles spoke about Xi as the “core” of the Party were also summoned by MOFA. In fact, foreign media reports discussing Xi as the party’s “core” had actually lfted the term from an article in China’s main state-owned newspaper, People’s Daily, which had used it to describe Xi.

China-based foreign journalists and their news assistants told PEN America that the Chinese economy has become the latest area of coverage to pique Chinese of- cial sensitivities, especially since the stock market crash in the summer of 2015. In meetings with international news organizations, Chinese government officials have increasingly demanded “balanced coverage” on economic issues. Journalists told PEN America that in meetings with high-level officials, the officials would criticize their economic coverage as too pessimistic or unbalanced. “They are very nervous about negative coverage of the economy,” said one bureau chief of a Western new organization. [Source]

The PEN report also details the ways that certain foreign media companies have responded to Chinese pressure, including increased vetting procedures for human rights-related stories from China and differentiating stories that appear in English versus Chinese editions of publications.

As mentioned in the report, Xinjiang and Tibet are notoriously difficult for foreign journalists to access and report from. In recent years, the only access has been on official media tours, where journalists are under strict surveillance and given very limited access to public sites or residents. On a recent tour of Tibet, however, some foreign correspondents found they were given more space to report, with The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer even allowed to broadcast via Facebook Live from in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. However, this apparent lenient treatment was quickly shut down as soon as reporters asked to visit monasteries. Denyer reports:

Nevertheless, the freedom we were given did mark a shift in the way media tours are handled.

There was, perhaps, also a realization that using a North Korean style alienated journalists and fueled a negative perception about Chinese rule here.

Of course, our interactions with ordinary Tibetans were limited, and not just because we had little time. We had to be careful we were not being watched or followed, and wouldn’t get people into trouble. Several people said they could not speak on political issues, and one said it was dangerous to do so. […]

At the turnoff to the monastery, police were waiting for us, briefly questioned us and then sent us back to the hotel. At least six security officials were stationed in the lobby and at the hotel gate to make sure we didn’t leave again. [Source]

Chinese journalists who work with foreign correspondents as translators, assistants, or fixers often face the harshest retribution for their reporting. For Roads and Kingdoms blog, Piper French interviewed Christine Wei, a news assistant at a foreign news agency, about her experiences:

R&K: Have you experienced challenges working with foreign journalists in the past?

Wei: Yes, definitely. You know, China’s censorship is very strict. There are a lot of topics we are not allowed to work on, like human rights stories, or topics concerning state leaders. Currently, pollution stories. I’m remembering last year, I worked with a German radio reporter based in China in Beijing, and we went to Tangshan to the steel plant. The smoke being emitted from the plant seriously polluted local air and was causing cancer in the village. We went there, but we were stopped. When we got there some police officers spotted us and we were chased by several police. It’s actually very dangerous.

Even with work at a permanent news agency in China, we still have to be cautious, because the local government will sometimes warn us. Sometimes they’ll call us and say: you can come out and we’ll have tea and let’s talk about your work, with your boss. Just warning us, you know, that there’s a boundary. Because I’m a Chinese national, I’m not allowed to [cross] that boundary.

R&K: So when they invite you for tea, is that a friendly gesture that’s actually disguising a more menacing implication?

Wei: Yeah, they always tell us: you are a Chinese national, this is your home. Foreign journalists, they can leave any time they want, but you cannot: you have family here, you have parents here, a husband, kids. If you are making something that’s really crossing a line, we can just put you in prison. They’ve actually done that. [Source]