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Committee to Protect Journalists
|10. An Opening: Foreign Journalists See Gains
With interview and travel rules relaxed, foreign reporters find that conditions are better. The bad news: The looser rules are only temporary.
“Excuse me, sir. Stop, please,” says the officer politely but firmly, before explaining in impressively advanced English: “It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China you should obey China law and do nothing against your status.”
“Oh, I see,” says the visiting reporter, adding hopefully, “May I go now?” “No. Come with us,” the officer is told to reply at this point.
“To clear up this matter.”
How often this conversation occurs when an estimated 20,000 accredited journalists descend on Beijing
in August 2008 will be one of the key factors in judging the success of the Olympics. If it occurs rarely
or not at all, the organizers’ claim that the Games will promote a more open society in China will have been
partly realized. But if reporters start getting hauled away to “clear up matters,” it will draw attention to the
host country’s designation as the world’s leading jailer of journalists.
Under temporary Olympic regulations introduced on January 1, 2007, foreign journalists no longer need to get advance permission from provincial authorities for each interview or visit outside Beijing. Instead, Article 6 of the new rulebook states: “To interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent.” A foreign reporter should learn this by heart. Should you get involved in a “misunderstanding” with the police, recite these important words, and note that they were approved by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
The new set of rules—published as the “Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists During the Beijing Olympic Games and their Preparatory Period”—will stand alongside the old, which date to 1990 and are more restrictive. But in the event of any clash between the two, the 2007 regulations, issued by the State Council, are supposed to take precedence. Exactly how this will work in practice has been the subject of some confusion. Although the wording of the new rules suggests they might apply to Olympic-related matters only, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said they would be liberally interpreted to cover all topics, including politics and social issues, and all regions, even restive Tibet and the autonomous region of Xinjiang.
Not all local authorities appear to have gotten the message. In the first three months after the Olympic regulations were introduced, at least five foreign reporters were stopped by police while covering stories in the provinces. Encouragingly, almost all of these incidents were resolved by phone calls to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
It is a considerable improvement. A survey released in August 2006 by the FCCC found 72 cases of harassment in the previous two years. These included more than 30 police detentions of journalists, 21 incidents of reporting materials being destroyed, and 10 cases of physical harassment, including several beatings and a strip search, of reporters or their sources. This was by no means a comprehensive total. Less than half of the 543 foreign journalists in China at the time of the survey were members of the FCCC, and some correspondents were reluctant to provide details because they feared repercussions.
For many foreign journalists, detention is more inconvenience than hardship. The interrogators are generally polite, and freedom can usually be attained after two to six hours of questioning. But reporters who are ethnic Chinese or from other Asian nations can face much worse treatment. Ng Han Guan, an Associated Press photographer, was clubbed and his camera smashed by plainclothes security personnel when he took a picture of a colleague being manhandled by police after the 2004 Asian Cup final in Beijing. BBC producer Bessie Du and camera operator Al Go were strip-searched by police after they visited the scene of a riot in the village of Dingzhou in Hebei province last summer.
Chinese sources and assistants are especially vulnerable. It is as if there were a circle of fire around foreign correspondents in China—one that both protects the reporter and threatens anyone they come near. Those who speak out to the foreign media can face severe repercussions. Among the highest-profile victims in recent years have been peasants’ rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, legal rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and AIDS advocate Hu Jia, all of whom are either in prison or intermittently in detention.
A worrying trend has been the rise in violent attacks against sources by thugs employed by developers
or local governments. In October 2005, rural activist Lu Banglie was pulled from his car and beaten
when he attempted to take a foreign reporter into Taishi village in Guangdong province, the site of a land
dispute. Even harsher retribution appears to have been meted out to Fu Xiancai, a vocal opponent of the
Three Gorges Dam who was left paralyzed by a savage beating after he ignored police warnings not to
speak to foreign journalists. On June 8, 2006, Fu was attacked by unknown assailants on his way home
from the Zigui public security bureau in Hubei province, where he had been interrogated about an interview
he granted with reporters from the German channel ARD. Relatives say a blow broke his neck, leaving
him paralyzed from the neck down but able to speak. According to the U.S.-based advocacy group Human
Rights in China, Fu was repeatedly warned by police and local officials that he would be severely punished
for talking to the foreign press. A police investigation concluded that his injuries were suffered in a fall.
Reporters based in Hong Kong say they are still expected to get special approval from the central government or the official Xinhua News Agency to cover stories on the mainland, but nobody has paid heed to this stipulation for years. They foresee few problems for sports journalists in 2008, but say difficulties may arise if visiting reporters move on to sensitive news topics. The depth of that quandary is illustrated by the case of Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong resident and veteran correspondent with The Straits Times. Ching was sentenced to five years in prison in 2006 on spying charges—which he denies—and his court case was anything but transparent.
Under the Olympic guidelines, foreign news outlets operating in Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenyang, and Qinhuangdao are supposed to hire local assistants through authorized service organizations. Elsewhere, reporters should contact the provincial foreign affairs office. Under the old rules, foreign correspondents were supposed to hire assistants only through the Diplomatic Service Bureau, which is part of the Foreign Ministry. Most employees from this source were inevitably considered spies, though close working relationships often overcame such suspicions. In recent years, many reporters have circumvented the rules to recruit assistants independently. Several news organizations have also used their Chinese assistants as de facto reporters, though they cannot be registered as such even under the Olympic rules.
The Diplomatic Service Bureau is increasingly willing to accept private hirings, but insists that foreign
news agencies pay a “management fee” for each assistant hired, and it strongly encourages organizations
to take out expensive social insurance policies offered through the bureau. Such schemes will be difficult to
implement in 2008, when thousands of visiting reporters will need temporary assistants.