(Washington, DC) - If fully implemented, Beijing's decision to permanently enshrine in law key provisions of its Olympics-related temporary regulations on foreign media could herald a less restrictive reporting climate in China, Human Rights Watch said today.
Announced on October 17, the new 23-point regulation signals the Chinese government's acceptance of basic reporting rights, including the freedom of foreign correspondents to interview any consenting interviewee without official permission, and creates a permanent measurable standard of foreign media freedom in China.
"This decision marks an important step forward in the battle for freedom of expression in China," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But the struggle will continue until all journalists - particularly Chinese journalists - have full freedom to report and exercise their rights under the Chinese constitution and international law."
The temporary regulations on foreign media freedom were originally in effect from January 1, 2007 to October 17, 2008. The Olympic rules had explicitly removed a long-standing regulatory handcuff of requiring foreign correspondents to secure government permission for interviews with Chinese citizens and for travel outside of Beijing and Shanghai. However, Human Rights Watch and other press freedom organizations extensively documented incidents of harassment, detentions, and physical abuse by government officials and security forces in violation of the temporary regulations (http://china.hrw.org/). These abuses were not investigated, and the temporary regulations never applied to Chinese journalists.
Although Article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China specifically guarantees freedom of the press, China's reporters remain hostage to the dictates of the official propaganda system. At least 26 journalists are in prison due to their work, many on ambiguous charges including "revealing state secrets," for having done nothing more than written or posted articles critical of China's political system.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that restrictions on and abuses of Chinese journalists are discriminatory in light of the new freedoms offered foreign media under the new permanent regulation on foreign media freedom.
"Particularly because reporting freedom can help bring to light public health, environmental, and corruption problems, we hope the Chinese government will see the wisdom of granting Chinese journalists the same rights as foreign reporters," Richardson said.
Human Rights Watch said that another important way to signal commitment to press reforms would be to investigate past violations of reporting rights, including death threats against foreign correspondents in the run-up to the Olympics. Beijing should also drop restrictive provisions in the permanent regulations which still require foreign correspondents to apply for official permission to visit certain areas in China, particularly Tibetan areas. Such restrictions have prevented the international community from having a complete understanding of events in the region in the aftermath of the violence which swept through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in March 2008.
"Beijing's commitment to defending journalists' right to report will be unassailable when these new regulations are consistently upheld and finally extended to China's own growing domestic press corps," Richardson said.