Thorning’s chance to press China for media freedom

Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is in China this week to meet with top leaders, according to international news reports. CPJ’s Advocacy and Communications Associate Magnus Ag and Senior Asia Program Researcher Madeline Earp co-wrote an op-ed calling on Thorning–as she is called in the Danish press–to raise the issue of press freedom. An edited version ran in the Danish newspaper Politiken today.

Speaking truthfully to China on its repression of human rights can be a tricky endeavor in diplomatic affairs, but Helle Thorning-Schmidt has a prime opportunity to raise press freedom on her trip to China. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not give the issue public priority during their visits earlier this month, but as Thorning meets with top Communist Party leaders and addresses a World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin, the opportunity must not be wasted.

Foreign correspondents in China are accustomed to uncooperative local authorities, even since the government agreed that the foreign press no longer needed official permission to report–a concession granted prior to the 2008 Olympics. Here, at the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists, where we document attacks on journalists around the world, China’s noncooperation looks increasingly like organized obstruction.

In 2011, makeshift regulations appeared on Beijing city websites, barring international reporters from a potential site of anti-government demonstrations. This year, the parking lot of a hospital where high-profile dissident Chen Guangcheng was undergoing treatment was declared off limits. Officials threatened to revoke visas for journalists violating the improvised exclusion zones. That risk was underscored when China’s Foreign Ministry declined to renew the credentials of Al-Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan without explanation, forcing her to quit the country in May.

Why now? Top-down information control is tight in advance of new leadership appointments at the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress this fall. Authorities censored the U.S.-based Bloomberg news agency for a June report on financial assets held by the family of Xi Jinping, who is tipped as the country’s next president. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported this week that Chinese sales of Bloomberg’s terminal service, which offers real-time financial data and was unaffected by the censorship, have since declined. On the ground, anti-foreign sentiment is also high. State CCTV host Yang Rui caught the nationalist tone at its most unpleasant when he crowed about Melissa Chan’s expulsion on social media: “We kicked out that foreign bitch.”

Danish journalists got a taste of what it’s like to cover top Chinese party members in June, when President Hu Jintao dodged critical questions by simply refusing to participate in a press conference on his trip to Denmark. Local reporters in China have it even harder: CPJ documented at least 27 journalists in jail as of December 1, 2011. Just as international journalists comb domestic media for upcoming stories, local reporters rely on the foreign press to publicize stories that are banned at home.

Now the foreign press is asking for help. In August, the Foreign Correspondents’ Clubs in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong reported four incidents of harassment against international reporters. More than 20 German journalists wrote to Merkel the same month about worsening reporting conditions in China. CPJ appealed to Clinton on the same issue earlier this week. Yet although some German news reports said Merkel had raised the issue privately, coverage of their subsequent China visits focused very much on economic and political negotiations–without acknowledging that an unfettered international media is essential to both.

Thorning has a chance to pick up the slack. She should emphasize that press freedom is a fundamental human right. But she should also underline that for China to participate in a global networked economy, it must welcome global journalists to work freely.