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China: Media Freedom Under Assault Ahead of 2008 Olympics

Harassment of Journalists, Censorship Still Prevalent Despite Official Pledges

(Hong Kong) - The Chinese government is backtracking on new rules that allow much greater freedom to foreign journalists, and is continuing to deny comparable freedoms to Chinese journalists, Human Rights Watch said today.

Moreover, there are indications that a further tightening of restrictions on the domestic media – already subject to systemic censorship and recurrent crackdowns – is looming, and journalists’ sources are being targeted for reprisal by local officials.

“The Chinese government is already failing to deliver on its pledge to fully lift restrictions for foreign journalists ahead of the Beijing Games,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These arbitrary restrictions on press freedoms undermine the new regulations, and raise questions about the government’s commitment to implement them in the first place.”

The new freedoms are set out in the “Service Guide for Foreign Media,” published on the Web site of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. That document states that “the Regulations on Reporting Activities by Foreign Journalists shall apply to the coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games and the preparation as well as political, economic, social and cultural matters of China by foreign journalists, in conformity with Chinese laws and regulations.” The temporary regulations are in effect from January 1, 2007 until October 17, 2008.

But the new temporary regulations intentionally exclude domestic journalists from enjoying such freedoms. Chinese citizens who work for foreign media organizations in China are likewise excluded, as Chinese law expressly forbids their citizens from working as journalists for foreign publications or electronic media and relegates them instead to the roles of “assistant” or “researcher.”

“There is no justification for denying to Chinese journalists even the limited freedoms that their foreign colleagues enjoy,” said Richardson. “If China is genuine about press freedom for the Olympics, it must also emancipate its own journalists.”

While China’s constitution nominally guarantees “publishing freedom,” an array of national media regulations which include vague and sweeping prohibitions on the publication of material that “harms the honor or the interests of the nation,” “spreads rumors,” or “harms the credibility of a government agency,” are implicit threats to Chinese journalists who pursue stories deemed sensitive by the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China already jails more journalists than any other country in the world, with some 30 known cases of journalists currently imprisoned for their reporting activities.

Prominent lawyers representing civil rights and human rights cases have also reported being given a blanket prohibition by state security agents requiring them to stop talking to foreign media, and several localities have adopted regulations prohibiting lawyers and court officials from talking to the media.

“The Chinese government must acknowledge that the freedom to report is not a privilege that can be subjected to the whims of local officials. It must be consistently and unequivocally upheld in all situations,” said Richardson.

Restrictions on Geography, Topics for Foreign Journalists
Despite the official pledge to allow foreign journalists to report freely from across China, several foreign journalists report having been told that in fact there are certain areas or regions they still cannot visit and certain subjects they cannot cover.

In March 2007, the military stopped BBC correspondent James Reynolds from reporting on the aftermath of a riot in Hunan province, telling him the new regulations were “only for Olympics-related stories.” In at least four other instances since January 1, foreign correspondents have been stopped or detained in areas including villages of HIV-AIDS sufferers in Henan province and along China’s border with North Korea. The responsible state security personnel were either unaware of or unwilling to abide by the new regulations. Those journalists were released only after urgent phone calls to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials demanding that local police respect their reporting freedom.

“We are encouraged by indications that China’s government has shown a willingness on certain occasions to ensure that officials at the grassroots enforce these new freedoms for foreign correspondents when pressed to do so,” Richardson said. “But this should obviously be the rule for all journalists, not the exception.”

Several foreign correspondents have been refused access to Tibet, a region with a long history of Chinese repression and for which journalists and tourists alike have long had to obtain special permission to visit. At a regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference in February, an unidentified foreign correspondent stated that several journalists had recently been refused permission to visit despite the temporary regulations, and asked whether the regulations extended to coverage of Tibet.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu on February 13 justified the refusals as necessary due to unspecified “restraints in natural conditions and reception capacity” in Tibet, and said that foreign correspondents must still get permission from local authorities to report from the region despite the new temporary regulations. Other journalists who have taken the Chinese government’s temporary regulations on reporting freedom at their word and traveled to Tibet independently without official permission have been subsequently summoned and criticized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, which is responsible for the accreditation of foreign journalists.

Tim Johnson, correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers of the US, wrote an article in May about the government’s “comfortable housing” campaign in which he reported the relocation of some 250,000 Tibetans “largely at their own expense and without their consent.” Johnson was subsequently told by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ head of the information department for North America, Europe and Oceania that his reporting from Tibet included statements considered “unacceptable” by the Chinese government, such as his assertion that foreign reporters are generally allowed in Tibet just once a year, and that China’s policy is repressive toward Tibetans.

On his blog, Johnson described the frustrations correspondents face in trying to get the Chinese government to observe its own regulations on foreign media freedom in Tibet and the risks that Tibetans face in speaking with foreign reporters: “I had sought permission to go far in advance through the Foreign Ministry and foreign affairs office of Lhasa, but received no reply ... (and) once I had arrived, security agents followed me frequently, and people I had contact with were subject to lengthy interrogation and even hefty fines.”

“If the government is trumpeting commitments to new reporting freedoms, but then taking those freedoms away through incremental regulations and arbitrary actions against individual journalists, then there hasn’t really been any progress at all,” Richardson said.

Harassment of Chinese Researchers, Translators, and Assistants
Public Security Bureau and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials also routinely subject domestic Chinese assistants, researchers and translators of foreign news bureaus to questioning and intimidation. “I was told directly that I am responsible for what my boss writes and that I must report to them when we plan to do ‘sensitive’ stories,” a Chinese assistant to a foreign television network told Human Rights Watch. “All the Chinese assistants face these risks and we have no protection.”

Even those Chinese citizens working for major international news outlets are vulnerable. Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times in Beijing is serving a three-year prison sentence that runs to September 2007 after being convicted of fraud in a case that was marred by multiple violations of due process and concerns that his conviction was politically motivated. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for his release.

Retaliation Against Foreign Journalists’ Sources
Intimidation and retaliation against foreign journalists’ sources and interviewees is still prevalent. Fu Xiancai, an outspoken advocate for villagers displaced for the Three Gorges Dam, was beaten by an unknown assailant on June 8, 2006, after local police questioned him about his interview with German television station ARD. Security officers in Chongqing municipality (southwest China) threatened a local environmentalist assisting a European journalist with a story on toxic pollution, warning that the activist might face physical danger if he returned to the area.

According to another foreign correspondent familiar with the incident, the authorities recognized that the temporary regulations legally permitted the ARD journalist to do what she was doing; “the local powers-that-be just decided to go thuggish and go after the journalist’s source [instead].”

Chinese Journalists’ Concerns About Upcoming Regulations
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Chinese government will tighten its existing stranglehold on local journalists to ensure overall control of information disseminated by state media in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games.

Chinese journalists have expressed fears that rules due to be issued on July 1 from the General Administration for Press and Publications that will tighten the registration requirements of domestic print media in China indicate a looming crackdown on publications that at times challenge the government line. Several Chinese journalists have privately told Human Rights Watch that they anticipate the new regulations will strengthen the government’s ability to shut down “offensive” publications affiliated with larger state-owned media, but which lack licenses and registration. Publications that have gained large readerships for taking courageous stances in reporting cases of corruption and sensitive subjects are expected to be particularly vulnerable to the new regulations ahead of preparations for the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October.

In the past two months, the Chinese government has hit at the popular magazines Commoner and Lifeweek through measures including mass transfers of its reporters and editors to other publications after the two magazines covered “sensitive” topics including official corruption in the countryside and events during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution period. In January 2006, the Propaganda department sacked the editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily newspaper, and temporarily suspended its publication before resuming it under a new editorial team. A government document accused Freezing Point of “viciously attacking the socialist system” for acts including the publication of an article that criticized official middle school history textbooks.

Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to extend to Chinese domestic journalists the same reporting freedoms granted to foreign journalists under the temporary regulations and ensure that those rights are upheld.

“Not only is China violating freedom of expression, but it is also engaging in invidious discrimination against its own nationals,” said Richardson.

Both rights are guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to which China is bound as a member of the United Nations, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not yet ratified.

“China’s long-planned 2008 Beijing Olympics ‘coming-out party’ can easily become a public relations disaster if the government persists in failing to honor its obligations to media freedom,” said Richardson.

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