In China, relaxed restrictions to expire

China‘s decision to extend or end the eased restrictions on foreign journalists it put in place for the Olympics is almost a moot point. The decision is expected to be announced tomorrow, and in the past, officials have suggested the new rules will be extended. But a change in the rules will be largely irrelevant to how reporters, foreign and Chinese, operate in China. The government’s censorship apparatus is still operating at peak strength, and there will be no change in its policy of controlling media coverage. 

In January 2007, the government told foreign reporters that they would be allowed to travel around the country without seeking government permission and that they would be able to interview any Chinese citizen who would talk with them. The new 2007 rules applied only to foreign reporters–and not their Chinese colleagues. They were put into place as part of China’s 2001 pledge to the International Olympic Committee that “there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games,” a promise it made to quell fears that China would continue to pursue its highly restrictive media policies.

The announcement was met with cautious praise, though most foreign reporters had long ignored the travel restrictions and learned how to avoid hassles at airports and on trains and buses. Traveling without government permission was seen as part of the way the game was played in China, and being caught in a violation usually meant a few hours detention in a police station and maybe losing your notes or pictures. Sometimes you would be summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a sharp reprimand.

For all the criticism directed at China, foreign reporters have been able to do a pretty good job reporting about conditions on the ground. They have been able to interview Chinese people in the street, though the most sensible interviewees are careful to protect their identities.

Security personnel question Chinese citizens who grant interviews to the foreign media. On September 17, one month before the government was to announce its decision on what will happen to the new rules, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China wrote

The regulations should also guarantee protection of news sources. During the Olympic period, the FCCC received numerous reports of people being prosecuted, intimidated or otherwise prevented from speaking to foreign reporters. 

Around 100 countries have laws to protect sources. China is behind most other major economies in not recognizing this international best practice. 

“We urge China to join these nations,” said FCCC president, Jonathan Watts. “China cannot meet its promise of being open to the world unless its citizens are allowed to speak freely to foreign reporters.”

The FCCC keeps a running tally of incidents of harassment of reporters and their sources on this page.

As for freedom of travel, while the FCCC noted many instances of violations, China adhered to the eased travel restrictions for a while but reversed them completely in March, when ethnic rioting broke out in Tibet. Then, the government simply closed off areas to all but the most trusted Chinese reporters, and demanded that all Chinese media rely on the official Chinese news agency Xinhua and China central television for their stories. In May, when Sichuan was devastated by an earthquake, foreign and Chinese reporters flooded the area, ignoring government reporting guidelines handed down by the Central Propaganda Department. Only when the story turned from one of humanitarian need to a politicized story of angry citizens complaining about shoddy construction did officials start restricting access to the area.

The same sort of restrictive rules came into play as the scandal of melamine-tainted milk evolved. On October 10, the Central Propaganda Department ordered media not to report on a lawsuit that had been filed in Yunnan province a few weeks earlier against government agencies responsible for consumer product safety by parents of a baby who reportedly developed kidney stones after consuming tainted milk. Around the same time, the CPD had ordered journalists from at least four newspapers to leave Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, where Sanlu, the milk products company at the epicenter of the public health disaster, is based.

None of this sort of behavior is new–it is how China has been controlling the media for decades. Even if it does put into place a rule that gives foreign journalists the freedom to travel, a freedom that  they had already seized for themselves, don’t expect China to make any significant changes in its approach to government control of the flow of information. And don’t expect the government to allow its citizens to talk to foreign journalists without fear of retribution.