Beijing tightens the screws on foreign journalists

by Frank Ching

In 2001, when it made a successful bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing promised there would be complete freedom for the foreign media to report in China. While this did not occur, more liberal rules were introduced, such as not requiring official permission before conducting interviews.

However, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia of 2010 triggered fear in Beijing that the Arab Spring movement might spill over into China and, very soon, there was a clampdown on the media, which has now led to the first expulsion of a foreign correspondent in more than a decade: Melissa Chan, the reporter for Al Jazeera’s English-language channel.

Last year, when there were calls on the Internet for a gathering outside McDonald’s at Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping area, Chinese security authorities forbade reporting from the site.

Chan tweeted at the time that “police warned most serious consequence of breaking reporting laws would be revocation of my visa and press card.”

This year, Chan was put on a short leash. Instead of being granted the normal one-year press accreditation, she was only given two months. Then, when that apparently did not work, she was given one month. Last week, her accreditation expired.

China has implied that the reporter had violated Chinese laws and regulations. However, when asked at a press conference, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, was unable to say which laws and regulations had been breached.

“China addressed this problem in accordance with laws and regulations,” the spokesman said. “The media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong.”

However, Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, evidently doesn’t think they have done anything wrong. “We’ve been doing a first class job at covering all stories in China,” he said. “Our editorial DNA includes covering all stories from all sides. We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage.”

The Melissa Chan case dominated the May 8 press conference, with the Associated Press reporting that 14 of 18 questions asked concerned the expulsion. Hong dodged and weaved, refusing to say whether the expulsion should be seen as a warning to other journalists.

Oddly, the Foreign Ministry’s “transcript” of the day’s session omitted all 14 questions, leaving only two questions that dealt with the Middle East and two on the Philippines. Evidently, the Chinese government did not want to publicize the fact that it was unable to provide satisfactory answers regarding this case.

This statement—that the accused “know what they did wrong” without making any specific allegations—is frequently used in China when the authorities cannot justify their actions.

So what did Melissa Chan do wrong? The answer is simple: She was doing her job.

As the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said, her expulsion was “the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”

The FCCC cited six cases where foreign reporters said they were told by the Foreign Ministry officials that visa applications had been rejected or put on hold “due to the content of the bureaux’ or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.”

The International Federation of Journalists, in a statement condemning the expulsion, said: “The content of a foreign correspondent’s articles is increasingly becoming the critical factor used by Chinese authorities to determine whether a foreign correspondents’ visa will be granted or not.”

Beijing, it seems, wants to only accredit reporters who will agree to self-censor themselves and report in a manner pleasing to the Chinese government.

China is in a strong position.

News organizations, of course, do not want to see their correspondents expelled, especially if they have specialized in the coverage of China and spent years studying the language.

Individual journalists, too, have a great deal invested in their position in China. If they are denied accreditation, it generally means that they cannot continue their chosen professional life.

Ironically, while Beijing is making the life of foreign correspondents increasingly difficult, China is expanding its own media outreach around the world, pouring in billions of dollars.

But Beijing should realize that its efforts to increase its soft power are undermined by its repression of the media.

China would do well to heed the words of Al Jazeera, which is not part of a Western plot. In an emailed statement, it said: “We are committed to our coverage of China. Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist.”

Frank Ching is a journalist based in Hong Kong.