British PM should push for press freedom in China

January 17, 2008

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
10 Downing Street

Via facsimile: +44-207-925-0918

Dear Prime Minister Brown,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan organization committed to promoting global press freedom, welcomes your visit to China at this crucial time in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. Your trip provides a unique opportunity to encourage Chinese leaders to meet the pledges they made when they were awarded the Games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

At that time, China assured the IOC that reporters would be given “complete freedom” with “no restrictions” to perform their work. No distinction was made between the domestic and international press corps in these statements. Yet while British journalists covering the games will be relatively free to report, their Chinese colleagues will remain shackled by intensive government limitations.

We call on you to urge Chinese authorities to meet their pledge and implement immediate measures to improve conditions for both the national and international media before August.  

Our research indicates that the severe constraints on the domestic press in China have actually worsened in recent years. The content of all news outlets remains strictly controlled by state administrative agencies, supported at the local level by provincial and municipal authorities. For example, officials in Xiangshui county, Jiangsu province, proudly announced on December 24 steps they have taken to monitor reporters and control their access to stories, according to Radio Free Asia. One such measure involved public security officials checking local hotels for newly arrived journalists and reporting them to headquarters on a daily basis, RFA said.    

In addition, we respectfully call your attention to the following facts about the press freedom situation in China:

  • More journalists are behind bars in China than anywhere else in the world. With 29 journalists recorded in our 2007 prison census, China topped the list as the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the ninth consecutive year.    
  • Lawyers who defend journalists are routinely harassed by the Chinese government. In 2007, lawyer Li Jianqiang who defended three of the 29 imprisoned journalists was barred from practice when authorities refused to renew his license. Gao Zhisheng, defense lawyer of another jailed reporter, Zheng Yichun, was himself imprisoned on subversion charges in August 2006.
  • Imprisoned journalists are barred from receiving a press ID that would allow them to resume their profession after their release. For example, Gao Qinrong, an investigative journalist we awarded with our International Press Freedom Award in 2007, was released last year after serving eight years of a 12-year jail term for his courageous reporting on local corruption in Shanxi province.
  • The Chinese government heavily monitors the issuing of press IDs to maintain control over the media. In August, it launched a crackdown on what it called “fake” journalists as part of stepped-up security in advance of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October. This campaign of intimidation has continued ever since.

In January of last year, the Chinese government relaxed some travel and interview restrictions for foreign correspondents. However, one year later, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a public statement that it was aware of numerous violations to the new rules, including at least two incidences of detention by local police.

We also note with concern that on January 9, security officials refused to allow the wife of imprisoned activist Chen Guangchen to leave her village after she made an arrangement to meet with a German TV crew by telephone, according to Radio Free Asia. Officials also threatened Chen’s brother with arrest for repeatedly speaking with foreign media, the Radio Free Asia report said.

Time is running out to ensure that the spotlight currently trained on Beijing makes a meaningful difference to journalists on the ground in China. We ask that you make the most of your meeting with Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao, to stop restricting the press and fulfill their promise to allow full media freedom for all journalists–Chinese and foreign–in the run-up to and during the Beijing Olympic Games in August.  

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.


Joel Simon
Executive Director