Journalists Document Decline of Media Freedom in China, Hong Kong

In its annual report on the state of media freedom in China last year, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) described how authorities used COVID prevention measures to “strangle” foreign news bureaus’ China coverage. This year’s edition of the report, released on Monday and titled “Masks Off, Barriers Remain,” demonstrates that while conditions over the past year have improved slightly due to the lifting of China’s zero-COVID policies, the government has continued to engage in heavy-handed surveillance, obstruction, and intimidation of foreign correspondents:

  • No respondents said reporting conditions surpassed pre-pandemic conditions.
  • Almost all respondents (99%) said reporting conditions in China rarely or never met international reporting standards.

[…] • Four out of five (81%) respondents said they had experienced interference, harassment, or violence.

  • 54% of respondents were obstructed at least once by police or other officials (2022: 56%), 45% encountered obstruction at least once by persons unknown (2022: 36%).

[..] Technology plays an increasingly important role in the surveillance toolkit deployed by the Chinese authorities to monitor and interfere in the work of the foreign journalist community. For the first time, respondents told the FCCC of authorities using drones to monitor them in the field.

  • A majority of respondents had reason to believe the authorities had possibly or definitely compromised their WeChat (81%), their phone (72%), and/or placed audio recording bugs in their office or home (55%).

[…] • Almost a third (32%) of respondents said their bureau was understaffed because they have been unable to bring in the required number of new reporters.

[…] • 49% of respondents indicated their Chinese colleague(s) had been pressured, harassed, or intimidated at least once (2022: 45%; 2021: 40%) [Source]

Some commentators noted the self-defeating nature of the Chinese government’s obsession with control over journalists. In the latest Sinocism newsletter, Bill Bishop wrote: “The system can[not] tolerate any media that it can[not] control, directly or through inducements, and the rough treatment of foreign reporters, many of whom start with an affinity for the PRC, does not help their stated goals of improving China’s image and generating positive energy.” James Zimmerman wrote: “If China wants a good story to be told, they need to let the journalists do their jobs. Harassment only creates a new story line — oftentimes negative.” 

Correspondents from countries engaged in geopolitical rivalries with China, such as India, Australia, and the U.S., have had a particularly difficult time obtaining access on the ground. In a Sunday op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald, North Asia correspondent Eryk Bagshaw described his difficulties obtaining a visa to China, and underlined the importance of free people-to-people exchanges via journalism:

The Chinese government should learn from [the idea that most people who interact frequently with China have less fear of the country]. Interaction is not to be something to be scared of. A degree of transparency makes people understand each other: their strengths, weaknesses and fears. After all, they are just people, trying to make it day to day in the hope that their children will be better off than they were, in China and abroad. 

[…The news assistants, reporters, photographers and researchers who work with us] do this work because they believe journalism will give their countries a better future – often at great personal risk and without the recognition they deserve. They are the heroes of this profession. We take the freedom to report without fear or favour for granted in Australia. For their sake, we should not be complacent.

[…] We are all poorer for [having fewer foreign correspondents in China]. Independent, on-the-ground reporting is vital to help countries understand each other. The shouting match between Australia and China that characterised my first two years in the role was exacerbated by the loudest voices in the room – the government spokespeople on either side yelling from behind a microphone. [Source]

The environment for press freedom in Hong Kong is similarly perilous, especially after the recent adoption of national security legislation related to Article 23. In its submission on the legislation’s consultation document, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong wrote, diplomatically, that “the definition and the scope of state secrets, misprision of treason, sedition and foreign interference contained in the Consultation Document are too broad in nature, such that uncertainties will arise affecting the legitimate work of journalists.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated, more directly, that “journalists should fear Article 23,” noting that the law’s new crime categories are “instrumentalised against press freedom defenders” in mainland China. RSF also stated that “possessing publications considered ‘seditious’, such as the [now-defunct] independent newspaper Apple Daily, can become a crime punished by up to three years in jail,” and that the “simple fact of communicating with foreign organisations or diplomats could be considered as ‘foreign interference’, which carries a 14-year prison sentence.”

Soon after the Article 23 legislation passed, Radio Free Asia (RFA) announced that it had shut down its Hong Kong bureau in order to protect its staff. Two weeks ago, RFA published an article titled, “Hong Kong journalists’ new normal is working under ‘unclear’ laws with stiff penalties,” in which frontline journalists described how new security rules may lead to self censorship:

“What had been habitually acceptable, normal practice before, is no longer the case,” said a veteran journalist who declined to be named. “Journalists have to relearn and recalibrate.”

[…] Another seasoned journalist who also spoke on condition of anonymity said that while the immediate effects of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance have yet to be seen, the editorial process – from a journalist reporting the news to editors editing the story for publication – has become much more complex.

“For instance, if you have a scoop on a new government policy, would you report and publish that or would it be a breach of law? We don’t know what is considered lawful or what can become questionable,” the seasoned journalist explained, echoing the veteran journalist’s view of the unease that has been clouding the media since 2020.

[…] “Before, you just reported the news, as balanced as you can be, after getting all sides of the issue. Now, you would think twice and more times, whether to even report. It’s become a collective decision involving more editors and often lawyers,” said the seasoned journalist. “Or you simply don’t report.”

[…] “It reminds me of the Cultural Revolution, when your friend or family member reports on what you say and do,” a former journalist said. [Source]

Other recent incidents within China demonstrate the fraught atmosphere for journalists, foreign and domestic alike. Last month, police physically prevented CCTV and China Media Group reporters from covering an explosion in Yanjiao, near Beijing. In response, the CCP-affiliated All-China Journalists Association published a statement arguing that the police “should not simply and brutally obstruct the media journalists from performing their duties in a normal manner in order to control public opinion,” which led to a rare apology by municipal officials. At the end of the Two Sessions in March, journalists discovered that the premier’s traditional post-meeting press conference would henceforth be eliminated, breaking a thirty-year tradition. In the wake of these incidents, numerous essays and articles related to the state of journalism in China were censored online.

Another aspect of tightening press freedom in China can be seen in the increasing constraints placed upon Sixth Tone, a state-owned English-language online magazine published by Shanghai United Media Group. In an article last week for Al Jazeera, Frederik Kelter described the CCP’s tightening grip on Chinese media, viewed through the lens of Sixth Tone:

In RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, meanwhile, China fell four spots compared with 2022, ranking second to bottom and just above North Korea. More journalists are currently in jail in China than anywhere else in the world.

“There has been a very clear development towards greater state control over the media in China in recent years leaving very little space for media,” Alfred Wu, a scholar of public governance in China at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.

[…] “Under the rule of President Xi Jinping, state media in China have been consolidated and aligned closer with the ideology of the CCP,” said [Shaoyu Yuan, a scholar of Chinese studies at Rutger’s University].

“This involves regular ideological education and training, aiming to make sure that reporting reinforces Xi Jinping Thought [Xi’s ideology] and the objectives of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and this is why we are witnessing foreign staff members resigning from media outlets like Sixth Tone.” [Source]

The Chinese government’s tactics of harassment and surveillance of foreign journalists in China are also being wielded against Chinese citizens to prevent them from reading content on foreign social media platforms. Last month, for World Day Against Cyber Censorship, the free speech website Article 19 highlighted how the Chinese government has recently been intimidating citizens who attempt to obtain such news:

China employs one of the most sophisticated censorship regimes in the world, backed up by targeted intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary imprisonment when the censors fail to prevent the dissemination of information Beijing does not like. Now it has begun to persecute the followers of exiled Chinese social media influencers, whose overseas accounts protect them from the blockages that befall Chinese platforms inside the Great Firewall.

[…] On 25 February this year, Teacher Li and Wang Zhi’an revealed in separate posts that the Ministry of Public Security was investigating the identities of their combined over 2.5 million followers, and anyone who had responded in their comments. Those who were identified were being invited for tea, a euphemism in China for being summoned and interrogated. 

[…] These are some of the more high-profile, international voices on Chinese-language social media, supporting freedom of expression and access to information in an already incredibly controlled digital ecosystem. The intimidation of their followers, in this way, points to an escalation in police tactics to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing foreign social media platforms. It sends a new wave of silence through the community. [Source]


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