IV. Harassment of Foreign Correspondents’ Chinese Staff and Sources

I won’t do stories about forced evictions anymore because there is a chance that there will be thugs there and I will be beaten. I will be the Chinese guy [with a foreign reporter], so I’ll be a target.
—Chinese assistant to a foreign correspondent, Beijing, June 12, 2007

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 assistant’s family. The correspondent described his assistants experience to us:

Several times the security agents asked [the assistant] for lunch, for coffee, for tea. The security agents were friendly, not threatening, and said, “It’s your responsibility to let us know if you and you boss do [coverage of] anything sensitive.” They kept calling him back for meetings…then they started calling his family, his parents…and asked for his registration information, confirmed where he lives and informed him of the job he does. After that, he became very upset.46

The security forces did not make any explicit threats to the family of the correspondent’s 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 assistant’s safety, had to forcefully insist that he wouldn’t 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] can’t 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:

The main issue isn’t the [foreign] reporters, but what happens to the [local] people you talk to. The [temporary] rules give us much greater latitude to seek information and to oppose those who try to oppose our reporting, but how does that mesh with local rules in which people can be intimidated and detained for contact with western media?50

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 “China’s 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.