Foreign journalists harassed in Tiananmen Square

The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China (FCCC) has posted a statement on its Web site about Chinese security officials–uniformed and otherwise–harassing foreign journalists in and around Tiananmen Square. The group’s incident list includes five cases of obstruction reported in the past week. As usual in situations the government finds sensitive, police are not following regulations adopted in January 2007 that were intended to ease restrictions on international reporters.

Many journalists are in Beijing this week to report on the June 4 anniversary of the antigovernment uprising. A number of former China correspondents who were in Beijing in 1989 are remembering their own work from the time. On The New York Times photography blog, Lens, Jeff Widener remembers the day he took one of the iconic “tank man” photographs for The Associated Press on June 5, 1989:

I was sick as a dog with the flu and suffering from a severe concussion. A stray rock had struck my face while photographing a burning armored car during the Tiananmen uprising. The Nikon F3 Titanium camera had had absorbed the shock and thus saved my life.

While foreign journalists rarely encounter assignments that dangerous in China today, the pattern of official interference they face hasn’t improved as much as the government’s propaganda department (rebranded, in the English translation only, as a “publicity” department in 1998) would like everyone to think. Donna Liu’s experience trying to dodge security officials as a CNN producer on June 3, 1989, would sound familiar to some of her colleagues in China today:

“When I walked through the front door [of the Beijing Hotel], I was grabbed by Chinese security,” Liu recalls in an interview with CNN. “They threw me against the wall, took my bag, and took the tapes.” (Liu is married to CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz.)

Compare this incident from Sichuan in May 2008 in the aftermath of the earthquake, when “police confiscated press cards from a TV team in Juyuan and tried to forcibly seize video the team took of the Sichuan earthquake disaster area,” according to the FCCC. Detention for questioning, albeit brief, was also a common occurrence for foreign journalists covering the Olympics last year. Unrest in Tibet led to the expulsion of international reporters from the region in March 2008, and again a year later in 2009.

The Chinese government’s censorship of Tiananmen media coverage–and its equivalent online–is attracting attention because of the extreme political sensitivity of Thursday’s landmark anniversary. The repressive tactics in evidence this week are particularly aggressive, but as foreign journalists in China today can testify, by no means unusual.