The environment for foreign journalists working in China has worsened, with "negative trends" continuing in the past year, a press group said in an annual statement amid growing tension between Beijing and Washington over correspondents' visas.
"We have found that the Chinese authorities are increasingly using the denial of visas, or delays in their approval, in an apparent effort to influence journalists’ coverage," the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in a statement issued on Sunday and reported by Bloomberg.
"No correspondents for the New York Times and Bloomberg have yet been able to renew their annual residence visas, which have been subject to unusual and unexplained delays this year," the FCCC statement said.
Both news organizations have published articles exposing the wealth of relatives of Chinese leaders in the past year.
Now, their correspondents could be forced to leave the country by the end of the year if their visas aren’t renewed, in what was once a fairly automatic annual process.
A Beijing-based foreign correspondent who asked to remain anonymous said there was little doubt among Beijing-based journalists over the reason behind the visa problems.
"The authorities are very angry with The New York Times and Bloomberg, so they are meting out this special treatment to them," the journalist told RFA's Cantonese Service.
"Any stories about the leadership are particularly sensitive right now," he added.
He said the climate for foreign journalists had changed noticeably around the time of a clampdown on dissent sparked by online calls for Chinese activists to emulate the Arab Spring in early 2011.
"It was around the time of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. There was a period when the police would contact us directly, which they had never done before," he said.
"In the past few years we have had to have a chat with foreign ministry officials when the time comes for us to apply for our press card," he added.
The FCCC said Beijing had also clamped down on foreign reporters' ability to interview members of the public during the past year, rolling back a policy of greater access for foreign journalists begun during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"Large swathes of Chinese territory remain effectively out of bounds to foreign correspondents," Bloomberg quoted the FCCC statement as saying.
"Although a handful of resident foreign correspondents and some journalists visiting from abroad have been allowed into Tibet this year, strict restrictions have been imposed on press coverage there," it added.
During a visit to Beijing last week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to expand press freedoms and stop punishing U.S. news organizations for critical coverage.
However, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei gave a stock answer to a question about journalist visas on Sunday, saying only that China always "deals with issues concerning foreign journalists and media in accordance with laws and regulations."
Meanwhile, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson told Bloomberg by e-mail that the paper felt it crucial to provide "unfettered" coverage of China at a compelling stage in the country's development.
"We have made a major commitment to covering China and are eager that our staff can continue to work there normally," Abramson said.
Nearly two dozen journalists for The New York Times and Bloomberg are based in China, and all of their visas must be renewed by the end of the month.
However, the public security bureau has declined to respond to their annual applications as usual.
FCC Hong Kong
The Foreign Correspondents' Club's branch in Hong Kong, a former British colony which enjoys a greater degree of press freedom than cities across the internal border with mainland China, said it was deeply concerned about the refusal of work visas for foreign journalists.
It cited the case of veteran Beijing-based journalist Paul Mooney, who has received a number of awards for his human rights reporting, who was recently denied a visa to work for Reuters, which wanted to hire him in Beijing.
"These delays and the lack of transparency in the visa process contribute to the impression that the process is used by authorities to intimidate journalists and their employers," the Dec. 3 statement said.
"It may be no coincidence that these delays come at a time when major news outlets have published work examining the business interests and personal wealth of members of China’s senior leadership, as well as the social pressures created by the country’s growing wealth gap."
It said any attempt to restrict journalists' access to a country is a form of censorship, and urged Beijing to process applications for journalists' visas in a "fair and timely manner."
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.