The Foreign Correspondent Club of China’s 2022 media freedoms report, an annual assessment of the country’s reporting climate over the previous year, found that COVID prevention measures had “strangled” already diminished foreign news bureaus’ coverage of China. 100% of respondents to the FCCC’s survey said that “China did not meet international standards for press freedoms and reporting last year.” The FCCC’s report emphasized the state’s deployment of COVID prevention mechanisms as journalism prevention measures:
- 63% of respondents experienced some kind of reporting obstruction nominally attributed to Covid-prevention measures, though those measures were not applied to ordinary Chinese citizens.
- 46% were told to leave a place or denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no health risk by China’s own standards.
- 47% said they were unable to travel at some point because of issues with their healthcode, a government-run system which controlled people’s movements based on supposed infection risk.
- 21% said they and/or their sources were put under lockdown, preventing reporting, at least once.
- 41.5% said they were forced to cancel four reporting trips or more due to Covid.
“We went to the border town of Ruili. Entering the town was made very difficult for foreigners through the excuse of ‘Covid prevention,’ even if there were no infections at the time and Chinese nationals could enter easily.” – Reporter with a European outlet
“My compound told me that I had to report to them every time I returned to Beijing and they would decide case-by-case where and for how long I’d have to quarantine. I asked why I had to do that if I only visited areas with no cases or that were classified as low risk, and they said that different policies applied so I had to go to them each time.” – Reporter with a U.K. outlet [Source]
The seeming use of health codes to prevent journalists from moving freely has strong parallels to other abuses such as the plight of Chinese bank depositors who found their health codes turned red upon their arrival in Zhengzhou to protest frozen deposits. Journalists also faced low-tech repression including incessant tailing by police, harassment of sources, online mobs, and even physical violence. BBC reporter Edward Lawrence was beaten and arrested by police while covering anti-COVID protests in Shanghai last November. Sjoerd den Daas, a correspondent for Dutch outlet NOS, posted a Dutch-language Twitter thread detailing the police harassment he faces in the course of an “average workday”:
First, den Daas is selected for a “routine check” while on the train to report a story:
‘s Ochtends met de trein. Een comfortabele twee uur, ergens in de provincie. Agenten marcheren door de trein, speurend naar de twee journalisten aan boord. ‘Een routinecheck’, heet het, ‘iedereen wordt gecheckt’, zegt de conducteur. pic.twitter.com/etc3nQGDQw
— Sjoerd den Daas (@sjoerddendaas) March 1, 2023
Upon arrival at his destination, den Daas is tailed by two cars. One driver claims to be picking up a passenger, but never does so, and then follows den Daas for miles:
De bestuurder van de ‘112’ claimt iemand op te wachten, een treinpassagier. Zonder opgepikte passagier zijn we beide auto’s 60 kilometer verderop nog altijd niet kwijt. Elke bonusronde over de rotonde doen ze mee. Keren op de weg, door rood rijden: alles mag, lijkt het. pic.twitter.com/3xRZYDuc1W
— Sjoerd den Daas (@sjoerddendaas) March 1, 2023
In a shopping center, a man follows den Daas into and then out of an elevator, repeatedly, and refuses to identify which government agency he works for:
Female journalists of Asian descent are at particular risk of coordinated online harassment campaigns. A 2022 study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that Twitter bots, likely operated by a pro-Party network, were maliciously targeting female Asian journalists with tailored abusive messages:
Other parts of the campaign are far more sophisticated and tailored. A number of women of Asian descent are being targeted by a widespread, coordinated, intimidating and malicious campaign that has been crafted to be highly personal, abusive and threatening. Content has been tailored to their individual circumstances, covering their work and personal lives. This would have required extensive surveillance of targeted individuals in order to tailor these tweets and their messaging.
These women are accused of being traitors and liars, betraying their ‘motherland’ and slandering their home country (even though many of them were born overseas and have never held Chinese citizenship). These accounts attempt to attack their physical appearance, question their credibility and the quality of their work, often in response to specific content they’ve written or produced. These parts of the campaign are characterised by high levels of personal abuse including sexist, misogynistic and racist attacks that include messages such as ‘traitors don’t die well’ and ‘traitors often come to a bad end’.
[…] New York Times reporter Muyi Xiao and Washington-DC-based video journalist Xinyan Yu are currently the targets of some of the most malicious parts of this campaign. Many of the Twitter accounts targeting them are linked to the same operators targeting Fan and other CCP-linked information operations (that have targeted, for example, Guo Wengui and other Chinese dissidents). Earlier this week, at least 112 different accounts posted more than 500 tweets targeting Xiao within 24 hours. Of these accounts, 54 were created on 15 April alone. Since we collected this data, it appears that Twitter has taken down some of the accounts, but not all. [Source]
Chinese journalists working for foreign and domestic bureaus are at greatest risk of harassment and detention. Bloomberg news assistant Haze Fan, a Chinese national, was held for over a year on murky national security charges until her release on bail in January 2022. In February of this year, state news agency Xinhua announced the continuation of a crackdown on unregistered journalists and outlets. All journalists must carry a “press card” issued by the National Press and Publication Administration. This year, the NPPA’s guidelines for the media accreditation review process stressed loyalty to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. At the Canadian outlet The Globe and Mail, James Griffiths highlighted the dangers faced by Chinese journalists employed by both domestic and foreign media:
For Chinese employees of foreign media, the pressure can often become unbearable. Already strictly limited to “auxiliary” work such as translation or driving, they are the first to be harassed over sensitive stories and can be subjected to racial and often gendered harassment by pro-government trolls.
Chinese employees lack the relative protection that a foreign passport provides, and many who previously worked as news assistants for foreign bureaus have left the country or quit their jobs in recent years. The risks they face are extreme: China is the No. 1 jailer of journalists in the world, with more than 120 Chinese journalists currently detained, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“State harassment of Chinese colleagues and Chinese sources contacted by foreign outlets has increased dramatically,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said. “This portends badly for coverage, where even the few journalists who are given credentials to live and work in China are unable to safely work with and talk to Chinese citizens.” [Source]
Chinese state media attacked the FCCC’s report as a “smear” intended to discredit China. A China Daily article reposted by Party-run outlet People’s Daily called the FCCC’s claims about COVID controls’ impact on journalists “risible,” ignoring the allegation of targeted double standards by adding: “the privilege to travel ‘freely’ as they misunderstand it would pose a risk to everybody, themselves included.” Many state-media reports alleged that foreign journalists were a tool of “Western authorities’ interference” in Chinese affairs. In an interview with Global Times, a prominent nationalist international relations commentator said the report was a reflection of the West’s “arrogant attitude”:
Some journalists in the Western media do not have a balanced and objective view of China. On the contrary, they take a position in line with Western ideology, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Friday.
The media can be a factor in Western authorities’ interference in China’s internal affairs. “I believe that in other countries, such behavior is unlikely to be accepted,” Li said.
Their statements have proved that they have not shaken off their “arrogant attitude” of pointing fingers at China’s internal affairs even at the cost of distorting the facts, Li noted. [Source]
The FCCC’s report was released just days before the “Two Sessions,” the roughly coterminous gatherings of the legislative National People’s Congress (NPC) and the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. The limited on-the-ground foreign press coverage of the “Two Sessions” has underscored China’s challenging reporting environment. People’s Daily reported that over 1,000 journalists from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and “foreign countries” had registered to cover the Two Sessions, a dramatic drop from the over 3,000 foreign journalists that attended the Two Sessions in 2017, according to state-media outlet CGTN Africa. At The Financial Times, Thomas Hale reported on the difficulties faced by reporters covering the Two Sessions, both regionally and in Beijing, as they were asked to comply with the final vestiges of a zero-COVID policy that the rest of the country had already abandoned:
The pre-NPC quarantine requirement was also imposed at the regional versions of the Congress — a contrast to the complete abandonment of restrictions elsewhere, from airports to offices. So in mid-January, by which point most people I knew had already recovered from the virus, I completed my fourth and shortest quarantine, for 24 hours, at a hotel in Shanghai. It also required three PCR tests taken over three consecutive days, and the completion of a table monitoring your body temperature each morning and afternoon for seven days.
The problem was that PCR testing booths on the street corners had by then mostly been disassembled, along with much of the data (though official estimates claimed there had already been hundreds of millions of infections). I found one hidden away off Nanjing Road. It was around 2pm. “Am I the first person here today?” I asked the hazmat-suited workers. “No,” they replied. “You’re the third”. The test, no longer free, cost Rmb16 ($2.30).
For my next two tests, after scouring the streets on my bike, I came across a booth on Wulumuqi Road, the site of protests against the zero-Covid regime a week before it was abandoned. The worker added me on WeChat to collect my details. “The destination’s the UK?” she asked, assuming I was taking the test for international travel. It’s the Two Sessions, I said. It’s free for the Two Sessions, she explained, with one of those crying-with-laughter emojis, because I’d already paid.
We were taken by bus to a hotel on Saturday afternoon, ahead of a Sunday afternoon press conference. The process of checking in was like a sketch scripted to capture what zero-Covid was actually like. I was supposed to check in on a special app that linked to my test results, but it wouldn’t recognise my passport number. Someone suggested I instead take an antigen test, which we had to do anyway the next morning. [Source]
Covid restrictions for media covering China's Two Sessions: overnight quarantine, PCR tests, approval to attend specific sessions, etc. Are the covid rules just an excuse for more press control?
It further limits access to China’s already extremely opaque political machine @cnn pic.twitter.com/RP1FBGmRUo
— Selina Wang (@selinawangtv) March 7, 2023
Bloomberg News reported on the restrictions faced by foreign journalists in covering China’s annual legislative meetings:
On Sunday, reporters lucky enough to get the very limited spots for the opening ceremony had to stay at a hotel the night before to gain access to the Great Hall of the People — although quarantine rules were enforced less rigorously than was before.
A significant number of seats in the section reserved for the press was taken up by reporters from developing countries mainly in Africa and Asia, some of whom were flown to China to partake in journalism training arranged by the Chinese government, which included attending the two sessions. Journalists were forbidden to take in items including second phones, selfie-sticks and power banks. [Source]
For comparison, Chinese MFA, which regulates accreditation foreign media news outlets based here, often says there are over 300 China-based foreign correspondents representing 153 media organisations.
— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 5, 2023
According to official attendance figures, there are 2,948 delegates in attendance today.
That’s just on level 1. The military band is on L2, diplos and journos on the third floor where we are but loads of empty seats. It’s huge pic.twitter.com/GKtFpsoemD
— Elizabeth Law 思敏 (@lizzlaw_) March 5, 2023
In an interview with GQ, the famous martial artist and actor Donnie Yen, a CPPCC delegate, accused foreign media of focusing on negative news out of China. Referring to aspects of Chinese modernization such as transportation (CNN), architecture (BBC), and app-fueled lifestyle convenience (New York Times), Yen claimed, “The BBC, CNN, they never talk about that. They never mention the true side of it. But I’m there, you know?” (Yen is set to present at the Oscars this Sunday but his comments elicited a firestorm of criticism and a petition to have him removed as a host.) The Substack blog China Charts has found that U.S., U.K., Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English-language media are equally negative in their coverage of the Chinese and American economies. Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult for foreign media to “tell China’s story well” because NPC and CPPCC delegates refuse to answer reporters’ questions:
It's only becoming harder to speak to any leadership in China. Two Sessions used to be rare chance to doorstop top leaders. After yesterday's plenary, literally had minutes to speak to delegates as they were walking out, majority refused (or some literally ran away) https://t.co/AkXrpVUZzQ
— Selina Wang (@selinawangtv) March 8, 2023