IV. Harassment of Foreign Correspondents Chinese Staff and Sources
The Chinese assistants, researchers, and translators of foreign correspondents are uniquely vulnerable to reprisals from official and non-official agents. Because their work involves the pursuit of stories that are often classified as taboo for domestic journalists, work on those topics often attracts the interest of state security officials who regularly call them in to question them or their employers.44
A potent lesson of the dangers faced by Chinese assistants to foreign correspondents is the case of Zhao Yan, a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing who is serving a three-year prison sentence that runs to September 2007 after being convicted of fraud. His case was marred by multiple violations of due process and there are concerns that his conviction was politically motivated.45
One local assistant of a Beijing-based foreign correspondent has become the target of tightening surveillance and pressure from at least two security organs of the Chinese government, the Public Security Bureau and the National Security Bureau, following the publication of a story about dissident couple Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan. Agents of the two bureaus monitoring the assistant have openly argued in his presence about which agency should have jurisdiction in his case. Pressure from those agencies has even extended to members of the assistants family. The correspondent described his assistants experience to us:
The security forces did not make any explicit threats to the family of the correspondents assistant, but a call from such agencies to a family carries a heavy implicit warning of potential legal troubles. The correspondent said that his assistant has now become extremely sensitive to any perceived surveillance, electronic or otherwise, by the security agencies of his movements and his news gathering activities. The assistant has also asked to be allowed to avoid doing stories that may involve potential violent demonstrations, the correspondent said.
The Chinese assistants, researchers and translators of foreign correspondents run particularly high risks of harassment and intimidation while outside of major urban areas in pursuit of stories considered sensitive by the Chinese government. The Chinese staff of foreign correspondents are often questioned and criticized by security officials who question their patriotism for working for a foreign correspondent. For example, an assistant of one Beijing-based foreign correspondent said, I was told [by security officials] that you are a Chinese, you must take your side.47
Bruno Philip of Le Monde said that when he was detained along with his Chinese assistant while covering the aftermath of riots in Guangxi province in May 2007 (see Chapter III.C, above), the police tried to separate the two in order to interrogate his assistant in an adjoining room. Philip, fearing for the assistants safety, had to forcefully insist that he wouldnt allow her to be interrogated outside of his presence.
Numerous foreign correspondents expressed concerns that the new temporary regulations for reporting freedom for foreign journalists will prompt government officials, police, and plainclothes thugs to place greater pressure on reporters potential sources to prevent them from speaking to the media. In light of the new rules, [the Chinese government] cant stop us from talking to anyone, so they intimidate the subjects [of our reporting] rather than intimidating the reporters, Sipa Press photographer Natalie Behring said.48 One of the Henan HIV/AIDS village sources of James Miles, China correspondent for the Economist, has been given the vague warning by local officials he would have to bear the consequences if he speaks to more journalists in the future, Miles told Human Rights Watch. 49
The potential dangers faced by the local sources of foreign correspondents is a de facto impediment to true reporting freedom in China despite the temporary regulations, a veteran Beijing-based foreign correspondent told Human Rights Watch:
Such tactics are a capricious abuse of power against Chinese citizens, who are more vulnerable than foreign journalists to government reprisals against coverage judged unfavorable by the government.
44 Human Rights Watch interview with a Chinese journalist (name withheld), Beijing, June 21, 2007; Human Rights Watch interview with James Miles, June 21, 2007.
45 Chinas Courts Uphold Verdicts, International Herald Tribune, December 2, 2006.
46 Human Rights Watch interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), June 14, 2007.
47 Human Rights Watch interview with the Chinese assistant to a foreign correspondent (names withheld), Beijing, June 12, 2007.
48 Human Rights Watch interview with Natalie Behring, June 14, 2007. In fact, instances of direct harassment and intimidation towards the Chinese sources of foreign journalists are not a new phenomenon since the temporary regulations: Fu Xiancai, an outspoken advocate for villagers displaced for the Three Gorges Dam project, was severely beaten by an unknown assailant on June 8, 2006, after local police questioned him about his interview with German television station ARD. See Chinese Activist Said Paralyzed by Assault, Associated Press, June 13, 2006.
49 Human Rights Watch interview with James Miles, China Correspondent for the Economist, Beijing, June 21, 2007.
50 Human Rights Watch Interview with a foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, June 17, 2007.