V. Harassment, Intimidation and Censorship of Chinese Journalists

Local thugs are more “polite” to foreigners and also foreign reporters can just be expelled [from China]. If something really bad happens and if I get into some [political] power struggle [via my reporting] without knowing it and they need a scapegoat, I could be it.
—Chinese journalist, Beijing, June 20, 2007

Chinese journalists are explicitly excluded from the freedoms granted to their foreign counterparts under the new temporary regulations. The Chinese journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their activities remain closely monitored by state security agencies to ensure that their reporting does not stray from that of the official propaganda line. Despite the explicit guarantees of press freedom in Article 35 of China’s constitution, the ongoing failure to respect this freedom puts Chinese journalists, who attempt to expose truths about society that the Chinese government prefers to keep hidden, under threat of sanctions ranging from demotion and dismissal to detention and prosecution. While there are courageous Chinese journalists who persistently test the Chinese government’s narrow boundaries for media expression, they are constantly at risk of punitive action from state security organs whose reactions to reporting of sensitive topics is as unpredictable as it is arbitrary.

The editorial content of Chinese print, radio, and television media is dictated by weekly faxes from the government’s official Publicity Department (formerly titled the Propaganda Department in English), which explicitly delineates taboo topics. Those taboo topics usually refer to issues considered highly sensitive and potentially disruptive but which fall under the dangerously vague rubric of issues affecting “social stability,” such as unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, or coverage of Taiwan or prominent dissidents. Those guidelines strictly determine editorial content.51

Already in 2007 the Chinese government has hit at the popular magazines Commoner and Lifeweek through measures including mass transfers of their reporters and editors to other publications after the two magazines covered “sensitive” topics including official corruption in the countryside and events during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution period.52 Chinese journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that official sensitivity to reporting deemed unflattering or undermining of social stability poses an increasing threat ahead of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2007 and the 2008 Olympic Games. One journalist also observed, “Reporting of ‘sensitive issues’ can be problematic, like riots, protests, detentions and dissidents…[and] the reporting environment could get worse after the Olympics [because] 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of 6/4 [the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre] and it’s the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding.”53

Those fears appear justified in the light of a draft law unveiled in June 2006, which bars Chinese journalists from reporting on “sudden incidents” without permission and calls for fines up to the equivalent of US$12,500 for unauthorized reports on incidents including social disturbances, natural disasters, and outbreaks of disease.54 China’s vice-minister of the legislative affairs office of China’s State Council, or cabinet, Wang Yongqing, said in July 2006 that the draft law should apply equally to foreign journalists: “I think [foreign journalists] should be included, the same as if a Chinese reporter goes to France or Britain, he also has to abide by your laws,” Wang told reporters.55 However Chinese state media reported in June 2007 that a review of the draft law that month by the 28th Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress excised the references to reporting of emergencies “without authorization.”56

That draft law underlines how the Chinese government reflexively prioritizes secrecy in legislation related to media and information dissemination, rather than the public’s right to know.

The Chinese government’s new “Regulations on Government Information Openness,” approved in January 2007, are a telling example of how even legislation overtly designed to ease the flow of information to the public is handicapped by official secrecy concerns. The “Regulations on Government Information Openness” allow officials to block the release of any information judged to be secret or that might “threaten national, public or economic security or social stability.”57 Unfortunately, Chinese authorities have a track record of interpreting these standards in both a sweeping and arbitrary fashion, making disclosure more the exception than the rule.

“Press freedoms are in many ways looser and the freedom to report is in some ways wider outside the prohibited topics, but there’s this gray zone that always leaves you guessing about what’s acceptable,” a Chinese journalist told us. Running afoul of the authorities in that editorial “gray zone” can result in censorship and official sanctions against them and their publication, the reporter said.58

There is already pressure on certain Chinese reporters who have garnered a reputation for artfully inhabiting the “gray zone” while producing stories on contentious social issues that the mainstream media either avoids, or dispenses in carefully concocted prose tailored by the Publicity Department. Colleagues of one such journalist warned Human Rights Watch against contacting the reporter, explaining that the journalist’s reporting had already gained the attention of state security personnel and had resulted in several meetings between the reporter and police. “[That journalist] is probably being closely monitored, so any meeting with someone from a foreign human rights organization could be very dangerous for her,” a colleague said.59

The Chinese government’s targeting of local journalists who broach taboo subjects, or who through accident or design find themselves on the wrong side of the “gray zone” of permitted/prohibited reporting, during a time period in which it has promised foreign journalists a measure of temporary reporting freedom, is blatantly cynical and discriminatory. It runs against the spirit of the Olympic Games for which the rule was implemented. China needs real media freedom, not tightly scripted propaganda notes or occasional relaxations of normal reporting restrictions, for both foreign and local journalists. The Chinese government pledged that it would ensure such freedoms as a condition of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The real job of the Chinese government should be facilitating those freedoms and making them permanent for all journalists, not undermining them.

51 Human Rights Watch interview with a Chinese journalist (name withheld), Beijing, June 21, 2007.

52 “Lifeweek:Deputy Chief Editor Miao Demoted Over Cutural Revolution Article,” Radio Free Asia, April 30, 2007; “RFA’s Exclusive Coverage: Commoner Magazine Ordered to Change To Non-Political Publication,” Radio Free Asia, May 4, 2007.

53 Human Rights Watch interview with a Chinese journalist (name withheld), Beijing, June 23, 2007.

54 “Chinese Media Face Fines for Reporting on Emergencies Under Proposed Law,” Voice of America Press Releases and Documents, June 24, 2006.

55 “Chinese Law Would Apply to All Media,” The New York Times, July 3, 2006.

56 “China Focus: Draft Emergency Response Law Bans False Information on Accidents,” Xinhua’s China Economic Information Service, June 24, 2007.

57 Mure Dickie, “China’s transparency rules could give state more control, say critics,” Financial Times, April 25, 2007, (accessed July 31, 2007).

58 Human Rights Watch interview with a Chinese journalist (name withheld), Beijing, June 21, 2007.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with a Chinese journalist (name withheld), Beijing, June 20, 2007.