Falling Short: Guidelines for Reporters on the Ground

Guidelines for Reporters on the Ground

Although authorities have tried to be more media-friendly for the Olympics, they are still determined to control information. Visiting journalists, especially those new to China’s uncertain media environment, should hire a savvy and trustworthy assistant.


• Major cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou are very open. You can pose politically sensitive questions and elicit responses.
• In some other areas, sources might be questioned or detained, especially if you’ve raised topics the central or local government considers taboo.
• In areas of unrest, notably Tibet and Xinjiang, you must assume you are being followed and that your sources could be at risk.
• Assume you will be monitored once you report on any issue the central government views as sensitive.
• Local governments may interfere if you try to report on embarrassing issues such as widespread pollution and forced relocations.

Sensitive issues

Here are some of the most sensitive issues and their implications for journalists and sources:

• Problems associated with the Olympics. Information is difficult to obtain.
• Tibet or Xinjiang activists, human rights lawyers, and other activists working on high-profile issues. Sources are at risk of intimidation and detention.
• Protests and unrest linked to social problems, including pollution, the government’s forced acquisition of land, discrimination against HIV/AIDS patients, and crackdowns on North Korean refugees. Reporters have faced interference from local authorities when attempting to cover these issues. Some journalists have enlisted help from the Foreign Ministry media office, which has occasionally instructed local officials not to obstruct reporting.
• Corruption cases or reports about internal party politics involving senior officials or other well-connected people. Information is difficult to obtain, even for cases that have been through the courts.
• Dissidents. High-profile dissidents typically know the risks and have made a conscious decision to provide information; some believe international exposure protects them. The lesser known are at risk of detention.
• Issues involving prisons and the police. Access is difficult to obtain.
• Reports based on internal documents, including information on censored historic eras or events, such as the bloody repression of students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Sources who provide such material face risk.
• All issues involving the outlawed religious group Falun Gong. Web searches on the subject are censored.

Some precautions

• Keep trips to sensitive regions as short as possible. Turn off your mobile phone as it may allow authorities to locate you. Tell someone else—an editor, a friend—where you are going, along with your expected arrival and departure dates.
• If possible, avoid spending the night in sensitive regions. Hotels are required to report foreign guests to the police, so check in as late as possible and check out before morning business hours.
• Purchase plane tickets at the airport and as close to your departure time as possible to avoid alerting authorities where you are headed. Choose local transportation that makes you inconspicuous—for example, a taxi instead of a hired car.
• Assume your mobile phone and computer are monitored. Change your phone chip strategically. Use public phones when possible. Be cautious when using e-mail.
• Avoid talking to people in public areas, where you may be under observation. Arrange to meet sources in nearby towns.
• Use discreet cameras or recording equipment. Change your storage device often and hide any such device.
• Avoid naming or showing the faces of vulnerable sources. Conceal their contact information.
• In electronic communications, avoid using sensitive words or names authorities may be monitoring.
• Travel with a Chinese-language copy of the “Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists During the Beijing Olympic Games and their Preparatory Period.”
• Install anti-virus software on your computer and ensure your hard drive and confidential files are password-protected. Change your passwords frequently.
• Discuss risks with your assistant and agree on contingency plans. Be aware that government agents may intimidate your assistant to get information about you.

Limited-access areas

China limits access to public areas that journalists might ordinarily expect to be unrestricted. The government occasionally arranges visits for groups of journalists, so it is worth making joint requests with other organizations. These areas are limited-access:

• Olympic venues. If you apply for access, you need to follow up regularly on your request.
• Olympic training sites; this includes access to top athletes. Apply early and follow up. Media access has been very limited.
• Military areas, border regions, prisons, courts dealing with human rights issues, and space exploration facilities. Join with other news organizations to request access. Apply early and make frequent queries.

If you or anyone on your team is detained

• Know your rights, and be a tough negotiator.
• Try to get names and contact information for detention officers.
• Phone the Foreign Ministry hotline to complain. The ministry has been helpful at times.
• Phone your embassy. The U.S. Embassy human rights officer, for example, is willing to raise the case of any foreign journalist who is detained.
• If the authorities will not allow you to place a call, use your cell phone to discreetly send a preprogrammed text message naming your location.

» return to Chapter 10:
Opportunity Dissolves: Foreign Media Still Obstructed