III. Threats to Deny Olympics Accreditation and Ongoing Violations of the Temporary Regulations

The last year or so has been like a laboratory on what the government should do [with foreign journalists]…detain, interrogate? It’s been like the marketing of a product called “freedom for journalists” and if it doesn’t work for [officials], they just tinker with it so that it does work for them.55

In some cases, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has responded to reporting which displeases it by threatening reporters’ visa status or the accreditation of their overseas-based colleagues hoping to cover the Beijing Olympics in August 2008.

Accredited foreign correspondents based in China are generally issued a renewable, multiple-entry one-year work visa, and the annual renewal process, which includes a short interview with foreign ministry visa issuance officers, is usually short and perfunctory. However, foreign journalists told Human Rights Watch that MOFA officials have delayed processing visa extensions and have threatened to deny Beijing Olympics accreditation to their foreign-based colleagues after the journalists produced what officials viewed as “unflattering” reports about China.

A foreign television news correspondent told Human Rights Watch that in November 2007 she and her bureau came under intense MOFA pressure, including threats to deny accreditation for the Olympics to the broadcaster’s foreign-based staff, after the reporter had publicly complained about being harassed and detained by government officials in Anhui province. Her remarks had been carried on the website of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. Ironically, the journalist had explicitly expressed appreciation in her remarks to MOFA officials who had helped to broker her release after three hours of detention by Anhui government officials. A “furious” MOFA official contacted the correspondent and said, “‘we have a special relationship with [your bureau], but now this special relationship won’t exist.’ The implicit message was that the next time we’re in trouble in the countryside, [MOFA] won’t help us.” 56

The same correspondent later discovered that MOFA officials also informed one of her bureau’s local producers that MOFA approvals of Olympics-coverage accreditations for the broadcaster’s foreign-based staff were in jeopardy unless the correspondent issued a public apology or correction. The correspondent refused to do so and remains concerned about possible delays or rejections of Olympics-coverage accreditations for the broadcaster’s foreign-based staff.57 

In November 2007, a Beijing-based foreign correspondent wrote an item in her newspaper’s online gossip blog about rumors involving the alleged marital infidelities of a former Chinese leader. Days after writing the piece, MOFA officials informed the correspondent that the processing of her annual visa renewal had been delayed due to heavy application volume.58 When the correspondent called a MOFA contact a few days later to inquire about the progress of her visa renewal, she was informed that approval of her visa remained delayed due to government anger over her recent blog entry. MOFA officials refused to renew the visa until late December, a process which took weeks instead of the usual 5-7 working days. MOFA also denied applications by the correspondent’s colleagues to interview MOFA personnel on matters unrelated to her delays in her visa renewal.59

In addition, MOFA personnel also told the correspondent that failure to resolve the foreign ministry’s concerns with her blog entry might “threaten the status” of accreditation for foreign-based staff of her newspaper who had applied for Olympics-coverage press passes. The intimidation climaxed when MOFA demanded that the correspondent come to the foreign ministry on December 25. During that meeting, MOFA officials showed her copies of her blog entry with sections they claimed “had intentionally insulted China” highlighted. The officials initially made the blog entry’s deletion from the newspaper’s website a condition of the correspondent’s visa renewal, a condition which the correspondent rejected. To the correspondent’s surprise, shortly after that meeting, a MOFA official told her that her visa renewal would be processed later that same day.60 

The correspondent’s visa was renewed that day, but the delay and subsequent MOFA harassment has made her highly conscious of the foreign ministry’s power to influence foreign media coverage through threats to delay or deny visas and media accreditation.

This was harassment. This visa issue was pressure to report the ‘right’ news. They don’t say it explicitly, but they make you understand that.61

Another foreign correspondent who renewed his visa at the end of 2007 said a visa issuance official indicated during the requisite renewal interview that the government was displeased by the reporter’s recent coverage of the plight of petitioners—rural residents who come to Beijing to seek legal redress for local grievances, including police brutality and illegal land seizure. “The [visa officer] said ‘What are you doing with these troublemakers all the time? Why do you talk to these petitioners?’ He spoke in a jocular fashion, but I could sense there was an underlying edge.”62 The correspondent’s visa was renewed, but he interpreted the interviewer’s questions as a veiled threat as to how the reporter’s news coverage could affect his visa status. The journalist continues to pursue such stories despite that veiled threat.

Correspondents George Blume and Kristin Kupfer of the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung were the last foreign journalists expelled from Lhasa following increasingly violent protests which began on March 14, 2008. On March 18, 2008, Blume and Kupfer were told that their visa accreditation for China would be withdrawn if they didn’t comply with official demands to return to Beijing.63 Blume and Kupfer subsequently discovered that local security government officials and police had instructed their hotel and other local hotels in the city to refuse them accommodation in order to ensure that they left Lhasa on March 18.64

Ongoing Violations of the Temporary Regulations

Foreign correspondents say that between January and June 2007, the first six months in which the temporary regulations were in effect, officials typically claimed they were unaware of the existence or relevance of the regulations when violating the temporary restrictions on media freedom.65 Over the past year, many journalists say, officials’ tactics have changed. Rather than denying the existence of the regulations, government officials and security officials now come up with pretexts to justify their interference or they simply refuse to uphold the regulations consistently. “No matter how much you complain and wave around the rule book, they just say they’re enforcing Chinese law, but it’s a very nebulous interpretation of law as far as journalists are concerned.”66

A foreign television journalist in Beijing said that the police’s use of constantly expanding perimeters of yellow police tape around the site of a housing demolition protest in October 2007 successfully frustrated her efforts to get usable footage for a story she was doing on the topic. The police declined to provide justification for their actions.

My whole purpose was to interview protesters, but [police] kept putting up police lines and separating us from the protesters and pushed us farther and farther back with multiple police lines. When I got back to the office my producer looked at the footage and said “Is this all you got? It’s so far away [from the action]!”67

A European television journalist, who was detained and beaten by plainclothes thugs while doing a story on civil unrest in Shengyou village in Hebei province in October 2007, said a local MOFA official insisted that she was legally at fault for the incident. The official attributed the incident—which ended with the erasure of interview footage shot in the village—to the journalist’s “misinterpretation” of the temporary regulations, which the official falsely claimed required “an invitation” to even access the village.68

A Beijing-based television correspondent told Human Rights Watch that security officials and plainclothes thugs who appear to be operating at official behest increasingly try to incite local villagers to obstruct his work by physically blocking his access to areas of news interest or interviewing local sources. “This is happening more and more with [plainclothes thugs] shouting that we are ‘harming China [or] doing a bad story about China and must be stopped’ [in order to] get other villagers involved.”69

An American television crew detained on March 16, 2008, by police near Aba County in southwestern Sichuan province, where there had reportedly been protests by Tibetans, said police attempted to twist the temporary regulations requirement of “interviewee consent” in an effort to force the crew to surrender tapes of their footage, including that of their detention by police. “We refused to let them see our tapes and trotted out the [temporary regulations], but the police responded by saying that they weren’t ‘consensual’ subjects in the footage we had shot of them.”70 The police gave up on their demand to view the crew’s footage only after four hours of negotiations.71

The temporary regulations do not alter the legal requirement that foreign journalists carry their passports and their Ministry of Foreign Affairs official press cards with them at all times. But foreign journalists told Human Rights Watch that in late 2007, government and security officials began making demands for correspondents’ personal identification, not stipulated by Chinese law in an apparent bid to delay and impede coverage of breaking news stories. 

A European journalist said that her efforts to cover protests related to housing demolitions in central Beijing in September 2007 were hampered by a pair of uniformed policemen who detained her because she was not carrying her household registration certificate. Foreign correspondents are not required by law to carry such certificates, which are official documents verifying the residential status of foreign residents in Chinese cities. The foreign journalist said the police who detained her dismissed her assertions that her passport and press card were adequate identification documents, and refused to take a phone call from an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who agreed to speak on the journalist’s behalf. When the journalist protested that she had done nothing illegal under Chinese law, one of the two policemen responded, “I’m the law.”

Another foreign journalist at the site of a separate housing demolition protest in central Beijing in October was likewise detained and impeded from reporting when police on the scene demanded to see her household registration permit, which she did not have. “This is a new and interesting tactic, especially in big cities like Beijing. The tactic is to delay [journalists], to ask for ever-increasing amounts of identification in order to pull the reporter away from the scene of [news] events.”72

55 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, January 3, 2008.

56 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, January 5, 2008.

57 Ibid.

58  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, December 30, 2007.

59  Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid.

62 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 23, 2008.

63  Sven Hanson, “George Blume and Kristin Kupfer are being forced by the Chinese police to leave the autonomous region of Tibet,” Die Tegeszeitung  (Berlin),  March 20, 2008, (accessed May 2, 2008).

64 Ibid.

65 Human Rights Watch, You Will Be Harassed and Detained — China Media Freedoms Under Assault Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, vol. 19, no. 12(C), August 2007,

66  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, December 31, 2007.

67  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, January 3, 2008.

68  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 1, 2008.

69  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 24, 2008.

70  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 29, 2008.

71 Ibid.

72  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, December 29, 2007.