IV. Silencing the Sources: Intimidation of Chinese Interviewees

The temporary regulations haven’t stopped [government officials and security forces] from limiting what we do, but they now do it differently and instead they harass the [sources] we deal with. They see the people we talk to and they go and warn them [not to do it again].73

Citizens have the rights to express their ideas under the legal system, which includes suggestions to and criticisms on the government. The rights are protected by law and Constitution.74

—Supreme People’s Court vice-president, Zhang Jun, March 2008.

Journalists rely on sources—people who can provide first-hand experience or eyewitness accounts of a particular event or phenomenon—in order to accurately and reliably report the news. Government officials and security forces have traditionally used intimidation and harassment of local sources, which are more easily controlled than foreign journalists, as a means of preventing the dissemination of “sensitive” news through foreign media.  

Foreign journalists say that the freedom of movement granted to them by the temporary regulations has increased the number of local sources to which they have access to, but has correspondingly increased the vulnerability of those sources to reprisals from officials, security forces or plainclothes thugs.

In the past 12 months, correspondents say, their sources have been increasingly subject to official repercussions ranging from possible deportation to physical abuse and threats of criminal prosecution. In several cases, correspondents say that officials interrogating them focused on obtaining the names, mobile phone numbers and locations of their local sources. That intensified pressure on sources appears to be an intentional tactic by government officials and security forces to maintain a veneer of freedom for foreign journalists while seriously undermining their capacity to report effectively.  

A foreign television journalist who was doing a story on North Korean refugees seeking sanctuary in China learned the price that sources for “sensitive” stories can pay when detected by the authorities. The correspondent was detained in the city of Shenyang in northeastern Liaoning province on March 5, 2008, by plainclothes police who confiscated the correspondent’s tapes which held interview film footage of North Korean refugees he’d interviewed in the city.75 Police apparently located and detained at least three of those refugees that same day by viewing the tapes. The correspondent said the refugees were last seen “on a police bus at 6 a.m. on March 6, 2008.”76 Given the Chinese government’s practice of forcibly repatriating many undocumented North Koreans, despite the severe penalties including imprisonment and torture on return, the fact that these refugees’ fate is unknown is of grave concern.77 

Journalists’ sources can run serious risks even in relation to fairly innocuous business-related stories. In March, a foreign television news crew did an on-camera interview with an aggrieved former investor in a collapsed pyramid scheme in the northeastern city of Shenyang. The crew learned later that their source was picked out of a meeting of fellow former-investors by uniformed police who beat him so severely he required hospitalization. The source was then briefly put under house arrest following his release from hospital.78

A foreign correspondent who, in November 2007, traveled on a government-organized media tour focused on the relocation of local residents adjacent to the Three Gorges Dam project in Hubei province discovered that independent interviews she had conducted brought swift repercussions to one of her local sources. “The next day the interviewee contacted me and said local officials came looking for him and asked why he’d said ‘negative things’ about the relocation.”79 The source said the officials had detailed knowledge of the substance of the previous day’s interview, prompting the correspondent to conclude that government officials or security forces had surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversation. “It’s a constant worry to go to talk to [local sources] because some of these local officials can be very vengeful.”80

On September 29, 2007, Sami Silanpaa, the China correspondent for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, began to interview the head of a local nongovernmental organization which provides legal assistance to migrant workers in Shenzhen. Within ten minutes of his arrival at the NGO’s office, “Two policemen, one in uniform, one in plainclothes, entered the office and said they needed to take the [source] to the police station.” Silanpaa continued, “Later he told me he’d been asked about me…and warned that he shouldn’t tell foreigners anything.”81 Police awareness that the interview was taking place suggested electronic surveillance of the correspondent, the source, or both. “The police could only have known I was doing the interview if they were tapping my phone or [the source’s] phone.”82

Foreign journalists’ sources also face risks to their livelihood from vengeful local officials who are displeased with the resulting coverage. A foreign correspondent told Human Rights Watch that a local source working for an international nongovernmental organization focused on poverty relief projects in western China, was subsequently fired from her job as a result of her cooperation with the journalist.83 The fact that the correspondent had received official permission from the local government to do interviews with staff at the organization and report on their work did not protect the source from reprisal from local government officials who were angered by the source’s cooperation with the journalist.84

When I returned to Beijing, I was told by my source that she had been fired because of [local] government pressure [because] it had gotten angry with the [international poverty relief group] and it was [a choice] of either firing her or closing down their [operations]. The problem for me now is that in this case we did ask for [official] permission [for interviews] and it was granted…and they told me clearly that regulations allow foreign journalists to interview whomever they want, if the other side consents. But for this woman, [that interview means] she has lost her job.85

A local source of another foreign television crew was subjected to severe intimidation by local police in connection with a February 2008 story on environmental pollution. In an effort to protect the source, the television crew went to extreme lengths to remove any links he had to their source by cutting the footage of his on-camera interview and not using any information that could be linked directly to him.86 Despite those precautions, shortly after the journalists left the area, members of the local Public Security Bureau visited the source and warned him that they would charge him with state subversion87 if they had evidence that he had provided the journalists with any “sensitive” information.88 Those threats prompted the source to flee his village twice for weeks at a time. The source has since returned to his home village without any official reprisals, but the incident has caused the correspondent to seriously question the feasibility of “safe” reporting in China.

Sources aren’t secure at all… [the authorities] can take out [their revenge] on the people who work for you, who show you the way. Those potential reprisals set the bar for [television] reporting uncomfortably high because it’s very hard to assess before you go in whether or not a story is ‘worth it’ [in terms of risk to sources]. In order for me to do a story, I need to individualize it, to focus on one person who tells a story which can resonate with people, but under the current circumstances I can no longer do that.89

Police threats of “subversion” charges against journalists’ sources are particularly potent in the wake of the conviction of high-profile human rights activist Hu Jia for “subverting state power” on April 3, 2008. The prosecution’s case against Hu included evidence related to interviews he had given to foreign journalists.90 One veteran foreign correspondent said that the circumstances of Hu’s conviction would likely worsen de facto self-censorship among foreign correspondents who don’t want to risk putting their sources in danger of criminal prosecution and imprisonment.  

For me, this means that if a [journalist] interviews someone, the interview can become evidence in court to charge [the source]. Simply expressing views can be “subversion,” so it makes a journalist question, “Do I publish what this person is saying? Or not publish what he says and [therefore] not reflect what’s going on in China?”91

Some of those meting out intimidation and abuse have been explicit about the relationship between potentially negative press coverage and the government’s desire to project a positive image for the Olympics. A local source of a foreign television journalist who was filming a story on environmental pollution in Hebei province in March 2008 was subjected to intimidation from “well-spoken, but thuggish” people who declined to identify themselves. The correspondent suspected they were local government officials92 by their style of dress and demeanor. The group became “problematic” during filming at a reservoir by closely following the television crew and walking into camera shots. The correspondent’s local source offered to speak with the group in their car to try to defuse any tensions. “He got out of the car quite shaken and said [the thugs] had said ‘This [year] is the Olympics, so you shouldn’t be taking foreigners around.’”93 

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

74  “Freedom of speech enshrined in China’s Constitution: Official,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), March 15, 2008.

75 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 4, 2008.

76 Ibid.

77 Human Rights Watch, Denied Status, Denied Education — Children of North Korean Women in China, index no. 1-56432-304-8, April 2008, China’s policy to return North Korean refugees violates China’s obligations under both domestic and international law. North Korean citizens leave their country for neighboring China for various reasons, including hunger and political persecution. North Korea considers leaving without state permission an act of treason and harshly punishes those who are forcibly repatriated. Returnees face arbitrary detention, torture and other mistreatment, and sometimes even the death penalty. This strong risk of persecution means many North Korean migrants become entitled to protection as refugees.

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

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

80 Ibid.

81  Human Rights Watch interview with Sami Silanpaa, China Helsingin Sanomat correspondent, Beijing, December 29, 2007.

82 Ibid.

83  Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), June 3, 2008.

84  Ibid.

85  Ibid.

86 Human Rights Watch interview with an overseas-based foreign correspondent (name and location withheld), April 16, 2008.

87 Inciting subversion convictions dictate imprisonment of up to five years, The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, March 4, 1997, Article 105 (2), (accessed June 13, 2008).

88  Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Matthew Lee, “Jailed activist Hu’s wife applies for his release on medical parole,” Kyodo News Agency (Hong Kong), April 25, 2008.

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

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

93 Ibid.