A minority of the correspondents interviewed by Human Rights Watch or whose testimonies were provided to Human Rights Watch by their employers or via the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) indicated that the implementation of the temporary regulations since January 1, 2007 has delivered meaningful expanded reporting freedom.
Several correspondents noted that since January 1 they have been allowed long-denied access to interview certain political dissidents, including Bao Tong, a former top aide to disgraced former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Zhao Ziyang and the most senior official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The security officials who enforce Baos house arrest have permitted Reuters, the Straits Times, the Economist and the South China Morning Post to visit him.
Lindsey Hilsum of the United Kingdoms Channel 4 News likewise tested the new regulations earlier this year and said that initial official opposition to an interview with the village chief in Xiditou, one of Chinas cancer villages outside of the eastern port city of Tianjin, evaporated when the local propaganda secretary confirmed that the new regulations permitted the interview. So for the first time in his life, the village chief of Xiditou sat in front of a camera and was quizzed about the fact that the villagers are dying of cancer and his factory is amongst those blamed and he wouldnt have before January 1, Hilsum wrote in the June FCCC newsletter.
An accredited Beijing-based photographer with a foreign news agency also said that the implementation of the temporary regulations has resulted in a measurable loosening in the restrictions on subjects he can photograph. On at least one occasion since January 1 the photographer received access to a facility that officials there attributed entirely to the new temporary regulations. [The officials] said the only reasons we were allowed to [get access] is the new regulations and that before, even if theyd wanted us to visit, thered be no permission from [relevant government units], the photographer said.11
These instances in which foreign journalists have experienced an expansion in reporting freedom have hinged on both local authorities awareness of the temporary regulations, and, more importantly, their willingness to respect them.
However, the majority of the foreign correspondents interviewed by Human Rights Watch or whose accounts of their experiences were provided to Human Rights Watch indicate a widespread disregard and denial of the new reporting freedoms granted to foreign reporters by the temporary regulations implemented as of January 1, 2007.
Many of those to whom Human Rights Watch spoke or about whom we received information indicated that the new temporary regulations have done little to temper the reflexive inclination of government, police, and state security officials to harass and to obstruct the legal reporting activities of foreign correspondents in China. That harassment ranges from close surveillance by government and/or security officials, to demands that the journalists cease their reporting activities and immediately leave the area in which they are working. Foreign correspondents say the close surveillance is intended to both monitor reporters activities as well as to silently intimidate them and their sources.
A long-time foreign correspondent said she and her colleagues have been harassed due to their coverage of political dissidents in early 2007 and of the highly-publicized murder of Chinese journalist Lan Chengzhang in Shanxi province on January 10, 2007 (for her experience of detention and interrogation in connection with covering the Lan case, see below).12 Soon after, the correspondent had difficulties in renewing her work visa, among other problems she attributes to intentional state security interference. She told Human Rights Watch, I know the stories we have done have angered [the Chinese government] and my visa renewal problems began after [those reports] We started experiencing internet connection difficulties.
The intimidation tactics worked. Concerned about the degree of official scrutiny her work had attracted and worried that more punitive sanctions such as the cancellation of her work visa could follow, the correspondent opted to not complain to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about her experiences in the hope that the intimidation would eventually ease.13 (For other journalists experiences with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and what they interpret as the threat to their visa and work permit status, see sub-section D, below.)
Some foreign correspondents have discovered that the freedom granted in the temporary regulations period to access and interview political dissidents results in not less but rather more intense surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of themselves or their local assistants after their coverage is published or broadcast. The attempts to cover mass protests and riots remain particularly problematic for foreign journalists.
Government, police, and state security officials have also harassed foreign reporters trying to cover stories ranging from approved visits to state-owned factories,14 corporate press conferences,15 a visit to one of Henan provinces infamous AIDS villages,16 and petitioners seeking official redress for grievances during the National Peoples Congress in Beijing.17
What should have been a relatively straightforward corporate story for a Beijing-based newswire reporter in March illustrates the difficulties that foreign correspondents face in receiving the legal protection promised by the new temporary regulations. During a previously arranged visit to a state-owned factory, the correspondent was confronted by an individual who identified herself as a member of the factorys Chinese Communist Party cell, denied any existence of the new temporary regulations, said the very existence of the entire factory was a state secret, and demanded that the correspondent leave. The correspondent contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance, which lessened the party cadres opposition, but didnt completely remove obstacles to reporting efforts.
The journalist also noted that the interviews were all closely monitored, ensuring that workers could not have freely expressed their views without concerns about repercussions.18
Harassment of foreign correspondents who report on issues of Chinas HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province, common prior to implementation of the new temporary regulations, continues to impede journalists reporting efforts in those areas. A Beijing-based foreign correspondent attempting to conduct an interview with an HIV/AIDS sufferer in Henan in January was interrupted by two policemen who intruded into the interview and did their best to eavesdrop.
A reporting trip to the city of Xian in January 2007 to look into suspected trafficking of an executed convicts organs resulted in a Beijing-based Associated Press correspondent attracting the attention of plainclothes police who tailed her throughout much of the second day of her two-day visit and interrogated her taxi driver about her activities in Xian.
This harassment is a worrying indicator of the types of hazards that the thousands of accredited foreign journalists who are expected to cover the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing may have to endure unless the Chinese government takes strong, effective action to eradicate such violations of reporting freedom. Foreign journalists cannot effectively report when government, party, and security officials have them under close surveillance, disrupt their interviews, or refuse to respect the new temporary regulations on reporting freedom. The foreign journalists preparing to cover the Beijing Olympic Games will expect that the rights being upheld in the new regulations will be respected.
Perhaps more disturbingly, foreign journalists in China have told Human Rights Watch that they note an increasing frequency of harassment and intimidation by bands of occasionally violent individuals who appear to operate openly and unrestrained by Chinese government and security officials.21 Numerous foreign correspondents told Human Rights Watch they suspected that plainclothes police constitute the majority of such groups, but are unable to conclusively identify them as such because the individuals routinely decline to identify themselves. Such tactics are increasingly common in China, with local governments and private companies using them to disperse protesters, intimidate political dissidents, and instill fear among opposition of any kind.
The correspondent who encountered visa renewal problems, described above, said that the use of such thugs, whether plainclothes police or not, reflected a growing level of sophistication in Chinese security forces efforts at distancing identifiable, uniformed police from acts of harassment and intimidation, particularly at protest demonstrations related to forced evictions in Beijing.
Normally such personal identification could only be done by an actual member of the police.
Natalie Behring, a Beijing-based photographer for Frances Sipa Press, was harassed for a full day in March 2007. Behring was followed by a group she suspected to be plainclothes policemen in four to six black Audi sedans in and around a small village in Henan province during a reporting trip about a Chinese serial killer who had been executed three years previously. Behring said the harassment by the men, who consistently declined to identify themselves, seemed to be aimed at both her and her local sources. Behring said the full day of harassment ended with her and her colleague being briefly detained by the police backed by the group of suspected plainclothes officers.
That intimidation included closely monitoring her efforts to talk to and photograph sources in the village, taking aside one of her key informants for what Behring suspected was an effort to convince the man not to cooperate with Behring, as well as following her and the informant to the grave of one of the serial killers victims.23
An abusive group whom journalists suspected were plainclothes police but who never identified themselves also made an appearance during journalists attempts to cover the efforts of petitioners from the countryside seeking redress at one of the petitioning offices of the Letters and Visits system24 in Beijing prior to and during the annual meeting of the National Peoples Congress, Chinas legislature, in March. Petitioners are ordinary Chinese citizens permitted by national and local regulations to raise grievances at Letters and Visits offices including on topics of extreme sensitivity to the Chinese government, such as police brutality, corruption, or illegal land seizures. Petitioners who attempt to visit the large Letters and Visits offices in Beijing during annual meetings of the National Peoples Congress have been the focus of increasingly violent action by police and plainclothes thugs who attempt to force the petitioners to return to their countryside homes.
Two journalists reported separate episodes of being manhandled and harassed by suspected plainclothes officers who repeatedly pushed and shoved the journalists and denied them freedom of movement as the journalists attempted to leave the scene. This was near Chinas Supreme Court, in a part of central Beijing with some of the tightest security in China, but uniformed police looked on and did nothing.25 One of the journalists, an Associated Press photographer, said she narrowly avoided being abducted by plainclothes thugs on March 1 while documenting petitioners:
Foreign journalists have refrained from launching official protests of such abuses for reasons ranging from skepticism about the utility of any such action, to fears of possible retribution from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the form of problems with work visa renewal. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has recently conducted a survey of its membership about the implementation of the temporary regulations since January 1 and issued the results of its findings on August 1, 2007.
The new temporary regulations have also failed to end the practice of detaining reporters engaged in legal reporting activities. Since January 1, 2007, foreign journalists have reported detentions at the hands of persons ranging from local government officials and police, to plainclothes thugs and even employees of a toy factory.
In some cases, foreign correspondents phone calls to officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have resulted in their relatively quick release. In other cases, release from detention was a less satisfactory process.
James Miles, China correspondent for the Economist, was detained in January by government officials at an HIV/AIDS-stricken village in Henan province who denied any knowledge of the temporary regulations and informed him that he would have to leave the area immediately. Miles called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and within an hour he was released and allowed to continue his interrupted interview. But Miles said that victory did not change the attitude or tactics of government officials in that village toward foreign journalists:
Bruno Philip, China correspondent for Le Monde, had a similar reception in May while reporting on the aftermath of riots in Guangxi province. The riots had been sparked by mass opposition to punishments against violators of Chinas one child policy. After being closely followed by two individuals he suspected were plainclothes policemen (due to their more formal style of dress compared to the residents of the town, who were overwhelmingly farmers and dressed accordingly). Philip and his Chinese assistant were briefly detained in a government building in the village by uniformed police who refused to acknowledge the new temporary regulations.
Philip called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance and within 10 minutes the ministry official dealing with him assured Philip that the situation had been sorted out and I was free to move wherever I wanted. But in fact the local officials continued to block Philips efforts to report on the riots aftermath
The Beijing-based foreign correspondent trying to report on the Lan Chengzhang murder in Shanxi province (see above, sub-section A) was detained and interrogated in early 2007 in a compound with signs that identified it as a military facility rather than a police station. The presence of only one policeman in the company of a sinister group of men whom she suspected may have been plainclothes police or soldiers made the encounter appear more like a mafia-style operation than an official investigation:
In some instances, even police and government officials are unable to assist journalists detained by representatives of private companies. The New York Times Shanghai-based correspondent David Barboza, his Chinese assistant, and a photographer were detained for more than 10 hours by staff at a factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, on June 18 while doing a story about toxic lead paint discovered in the factorys US exports. Barboza eventually secured his release from the factory after writing a short statement explaining the reason for his factory visit and stating that he hadnt asked for permission to take photographs.
D. Intimidation by Chinas Ministry of ForeignAffairs
While some foreign correspondents interviewed by Human Rights Watch praised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for timely intervention in cases of harassment and intimidation by local government officials and police. Other foreign journalists said that the ministry has reacted to the freedoms granted by the new temporary regulations by practicing post-publication intimidation tactics or overtly trying to influence the editorial decisions of foreign news organizations.
Since January 1, 2007, at least seven foreign journalists have been called in for meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing to receive what the correspondents say are implicit warnings about the tone or content of recent reporting. Or, in one case, an explicit demand to alter overseas coverage of what the ministry considered a sensitive topic.32
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has never surveyed its members about the frequency of foreign ministry reprimands of foreign journalists, so comparative data is lacking about whether there has been an increase in such incidents since the implementation of the temporary regulations on January 1. But several long-term foreign correspondents suggested that anecdotal evidence indicated that the frequency of such incidents has increased sharply in the first six months of 2007.
While correspondents uniformly describe the foreign ministry reprimands as perfunctory, tightly-scripted encounters, their implicit threat value is extremely high. Foreign journalists are acutely aware that their annual work permit renewals are at the ministrys discretion and that any expression of ministry displeasure at their work may be a forewarning of possible visa trouble. The most recent reprimands also coincide with a period of apparently heightened job insecurity among print media journalists internationally (due, for example, to cutbacks linked to falling advertising revenues). Such journalists are thus particularly sensitive toward anything that could be interpreted as a negative comment on their performance that their employers could perhaps use to help justify the journalists recall. Foreign journalists are also aware that international news agendas that place an increasingly higher premium on China coverage may be willing to sacrifice the concerns of individual journalists rather than jeopardize requisite longer-term good relations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One Beijing-based foreign journalist told Human Rights Watch about having been called into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June to hear complaints that a story he wrote about prominent dissidents Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan had ignored improvements in Chinas human rights record. The journalist said that the ministrys actions reflected its concern at the reporting freedom granted to foreign correspondents by the new temporary regulations. With these new rules, its a new situation and [the Chinese government] doesnt know how to respond. I suppose [the complaint] was a form of intimidation.33
Geoffrey York, the China correspondent of Canadas Globe and Mail newspaper, was called in to face Ministry of Foreign Affairs complaints on April 30 about a story hed written about the lawyer of Canadian religious leader Huseyin Celil, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in China on terrorism charges earlier that month.34 The Celil case has caused a diplomatic rift between Canada and China for several reasons, not least because the Chinese government refused to allow Canada consular access to its citizen. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expressed concerns about a story York had written on April 26 about a report by the nongovernmental human rights organization Human Rights in China detailing systemic discrimination and poverty afflicting Chinas ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.35
York said he did not challenge the ministrys reprimand because he had been specifically warned by fellow correspondents that the ministry was extremely sensitive to how foreign correspondents reacted during such encounters.36
A producer for a foreign television news crew was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 4 to face complaints about a story that linked the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing to the national disgrace of Chinas zoos.37 They didnt like the link to the Olympics and something very critical of China, the correspondent said.38
More alarming is the recent effort of Chinas Ministry of Foreign affairs to attempt to persuade the China-based representatives of a foreign news organization to intervene in what the ministry considered coverage of a sensitive topic by the organization overseas. A correspondent of the news organization, who asked not to be identified, told us, The ministry officials said, We ask you to cancel this [coverage], but I told them what they were asking was illegal in my country, contrary to articles of Chinas constitution, and also not allowed by our company.39 The failure to heed this foreign ministry directive resulted in the foreign news organization being penalized with a work visa denial.40
The foreign ministry reprimands suggest that the Chinese government is reacting to news coverage judged unfavorable by the government in an effort to prevent similar reporting in future. With the governments capacity to proactively and overtly prevent such reporting at least slightly tempered by the temporary regulations, foreign ministry reprimands appear to have become a fallback position for the Chinese government to intimidate foreign correspondents whose coverage displeases them. The ministrys choice of targets for the reprimands is also revealing in that the majority of those called in are representatives of relatively small media outlets that arguably lack the heft and savvy that major US media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, could probably deploy to counter any intimidation moves by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Such actions violate the Chinese governments temporary regulations on freedom for foreign correspondents and may spell potential trouble for the thousands of journalists representing media of all types and sizes who will come to China to cover the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The Chinese government should disavow such tactics, enforce the temporary regulations, and move toward full and permanent reporting freedoms for foreign and Chinese journalists alike.
E. Outside the Temporary Regulations: Continuing Controls on Tibet Reporting
Chinas government still requires official permission for journalists to report from Tibet, a region with a long history of Chinese repression, despite the new regulations. Human Rights Watch is aware of two foreign correspondents having been called to the foreign ministry in May 2007 due to its objections to both the content of their reporting of a visit to Tibet and the fact that they had failed to get the requisite local government permission to visit the region.41
McClatchy Newspapers China correspondent Tim Johnson, one of the two foreign correspondents concerned, wrote later on his blog that the ministrys move was likely a signal to foreign journalists in general to watch their step on Tibet matters.42
10 Email communication from Melinda Liu to Human Rights Watch, July 9, 2007.
11 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign photographer (name withheld), Beijing, June 14, 2007.
12 Life in jail for deadly attack on reporter,South China Morning Post, June 29, 2007.
13 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
14 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 20, 2007.
15 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 19, 2007.
16 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
17 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007; Human Rights Watch email correspondence with an Associated Press photographer (name withheld), June 30, 2007.
18 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 20, 2007.
19 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
20 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 18, 2007.
21 Human Rights Watch interview with an Associated Press correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 26, 2007.
22 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
23 Human Rights Watch interview with Natalie Behring, Sipa Press correspondent, Beijing, June 14, 2007.
24 The Letters and Visits system, colloquially called shangfang (appealing to higher levels), is a complaints system allowing citizens to report grievances to authorities, who are then supposed to instruct other government departments to resolve the problems. Human Rights Watch, China - We Could Disappear at Any Time: Retaliation and Abuses against Chinese Petitioners, December 8, 2005, hrw.org/reports/2005/china1205/.
25 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007; Written account of an Associated Press photographer (name withheld) March 1, 2007, provided to Human Rights Watch via email, June 30, 2007.
26 Written account of an Associated Press photographer (name withheld), March 1, 2007.
27 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld),Beijing, June 17, 2007.
28 Human Rights Watch interview with James Miles, China correspondent for the Economist, Beijing, June 21, 2007.
29 Human Rights Watch Interview with Bruno Philip, June 13, 2007.
30 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
31 Human Rights Watch interview with David Barboza, Shanghai correspondent for The New York Times, Shanghai, June 25, 2007.
32 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
33 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 14, 2007.
34 Fearing Chinese retribution, Celil's lawyer hides role, Globe and Mail, April 25, 2007, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/Page/document/v5/content/subscribe?user_URL=http://www.theglobeandmail.com%2Fservlet%2Fstory%2FLAC.20070425.CELIL25%2FTPStory%2F%3Fquery%3DHuseyin%2BCelil&ord=5160547&brand=theglobeandmail&force_login=true (accessed July 19, 2007).
35 China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions, Human Rights in China, April 25, 2007, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/article?revision%5fid=36063&item%5fid=36055 (accessed July 4, 2007).
36 Human Rights Watch interview with Geoffrey York, China correspondent for the Globe and Mail, Beijing, June 26, 2007.
37 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 14, 2007.
39 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
40 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.
41Scolding an Errant Reporter, Tim Johnson posted to China Rises (blog), May 15, 2007, http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/china/2007/05/scolding_an_err.html (accessed July 19, 2007).