Foreign journalists detained in China’s ‘Jasmine’ protests

New York, February 28, 2011–Chinese security officials’ concerted attack on the foreign press in a busy commercial street near Tiananmen Square in Beijing Sunday is a return to the restrictions international reporters faced before they were eased in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.   

 Police briefly detained more than a dozen foreign journalists and assaulted at least two at the site of a planned anti-government protest in Beijing on Sunday, according to international news reports. All were released after a few hours. Anonymous appeals for “Jasmine”-themed protests in Chinese cities, based on popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, began circulating online on February 19. The authors of the appeals call for an end to government corruption and an independent judiciary.

Men in plainclothes punched and kicked an unidentified Bloomberg journalist, confiscated his video camera, and detained him in a nearby store, according to the news agency. He sought treatment in a local hospital for unspecified injuries, Bloomberg reported. A journalist with Taiwanese television station Sanli TV sustained a shoulder injury when he and a female colleague were thrown into a van and detained shortly after 1 p.m., according to Radio France Internationale. They were released after 6 p.m., RFI reported.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said journalists were warned by telephone to seek special permission from the Wangfujing district office to report from the site, a popular shopping center. The club did not specify who the warnings came from, and said security officials had been unable to provide contact information for a police or other security office in Wangfujing where reporters could seek permission. The year before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, authorities issued regulations allowing foreign journalists to report without prior authorization on Chinese “politics, economy, society and culture,” although the regulations are sometimes ignored, particularly in sensitive regions like the Tibetan Autonomous Region, according to CPJ research. 

“This is the worst aggression against the foreign press we’ve seen since the Olympics in 2008,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Such a heavy-handed response discredits the ruling Chinese Communist Party and highlights their fear of popular opposition.”

More police than protesters appeared for the second in a series of Sunday afternoon non-confrontational “strolling” rallies. The organizers designated well-populated commercial areas for the gatherings, to minimize repercussions and render security interference more visible, international news reports said. A few hundred people congregating in Shanghai were dispersed by street cleaning trucks and police with whistles, according to The Washington Post.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur said one of its reporters, French journalist Jordan Pouille. An unnamed Spanish television journalist; and two Hong Kong-based broadcaster RTHK photographers were detained. German state broadcaster ARD journalist Christine Adelhardt and colleagues, and state broadcaster ZDF correspondent Johannes Hano and his crew were also taken for questioning, according to a DPA report published on English-language German news website, The Local.  

Many international news outlets published video and detailed accounts of the encounters.

BBC journalist Damian Grammaticas and a colleague were harassed and bundled forcibly into a police van at the same site, a popular shopping street called Wangfujing. The men wore earpieces but not uniforms, Grammitacas reported.

CNN’s Beijing correspondent, Eunice Yoon, producer Jo Kent, and an unnamed cameraman were detained in a bank and had footage deleted. Police officers obstructed an unidentified New York Times photographer documenting the heavy security presence.

A uniformed officer intervened to stop a man in plainclothes from hitting Voice of America reporter Stephanie Ho, after she had been shoved from the street into a nearby shop. Ho and VOA China service correspondent Zhang Ming were escorted from the scene and detained, she told CPJ by e-mail. CBS News also captured the incident on video. “It was totally unprovoked,” Ho wrote.

For users inside China heavy censorship scrubbed the words “jasmine” and the name of the street, “Wangfujing,” from the Internet, according to the U.K. Guardian. Local media concentrated coverage on the dangers of popular movements like the one recently in Egypt, according to international news reports. Sichuan-based political blogger Ran Yunfei was arrested on suspicion of anti-state activity on February 20, and several other Internet writers and dissidents have been detained or harassed, according to CPJ research.

U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman, the European Union’s delegation in China, and the Taiwanese government all condemned the incidents, according to international news reports.