Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020 — The U.S. government should immediately suspend efforts to effectively expel dozens of Chinese journalists and put a halt to mutual retaliation over media operations, which threatens to undermine the free flow of information as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads throughout the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement today that the United States would limit the number of visas available for Chinese journalists working at five designated media organizations. The outlets–Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily, and The People’s Daily–will be limited to 100 visas in total, according to news reports. Those outlets currently employ 160 Chinese citizens, meaning 60 will be forced to leave the United States by March 13 unless they have another type of visa that would allow them to remain in the country, according to those reports.
Pompeo cited China’s “increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation against American and other foreign journalists operating in China” in his statement announcing the visa cap.
The announcement follows China’s decision on February 19 to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters, as CPJ documented at the time. That move came one day after the U.S. government reclassified the five outlets now subject to the visa cap as “foreign missions,” as designation typically used for embassies and consulates, according to CPJ research.
“China and the United States need to pull back from this dangerous cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation that threatens the free flow of information in both countries–especially during a global health crisis,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “As a democracy with a strong constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, the U.S. in particular must show leadership in the area of press freedom, rather than adopting Beijing’s authoritarian tactics.”
The Chinese government said it was expelling the three Journal reporters in retaliation for what it called a racist headline on an opinion column that read, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” as CPJ reported. News reporters at the Journal have no involvement in the editorial pages, according to a report by the paper.
U.S. State Department officials, speaking on condition they not be named, told reporters on February 18 that the decision to classify Chinese media operations as “foreign missions” came as part of the administration’s efforts to confront great power adversaries, according to a transcript of the briefing. They said, however, that the designation would not impede the organizations newsgathering activities. They also cited the increased controls over media under President Xi Jinping as justification, and acknowledged the already difficult working conditions for foreign correspondents based in China.
CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review on February 21, noted the risk that China would take reprisals against U.S. reporters in that country for restrictions on Chinese reporters imposed by Washington. “[S]eeking to regulate or control Chinese state media in this country is likely to be counterproductive because it turns journalists into diplomatic pawns and provides a framework that favors Chinese censors who are already seeking to control the work of the international media,” he wrote.
In a report released today, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that Chinese authorities have increasingly used the threat of expulsion and visa denial to retaliate and warn against critical foreign coverage.
China is the world’s worst jailer of journalists according to CPJ’s most recent annual survey, with at least 48 journalists behind bars at the end of 2019.