Foreign journalists in China face official obstruction, expulsions and visa delays

'Tough and draining year.' The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China reports press freedoms in decline
By Wang Yun for RFA Mandarin
2023.03.02
Foreign journalists in China face official obstruction, expulsions and visa delays A security guard stops a journalist from taking pictures in front of the entrance gate of the Tsinghua University in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. Hundreds of students from Beijing's elite Tsinghua University took part in a protest against COVID-19 lockdowns that day.
Credit: AFP

Foreign journalists working in China continue to face government interference when trying to do their jobs, amid "battered morale" linked to repeated journalist expulsions and visa woes, according to a new report.

An annual survey of journalists' working conditions from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found it had been "yet another tough and draining year" for members in 2022, with scant hope of any improvement despite the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in December.

"China continues to be one of the most important stories of our time, yet since the start of the global pandemic in 2020, press freedoms across the country have declined at an accelerated pace, and it remains to be seen if they will recover," it said.

"Foreign correspondents on the ground traveled less and were able to cover far less in depth in 2022, largely because of [COVID] restrictions," it said.

The survey included journalists working for news organizations from 30 different countries and regions, although one in 10 were based outside of China at the time of the survey due to problems with accreditation, the club said.

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Chinese police clear journalists from a road outside the Beijing No.2 Intermediate People's Court before the trial of Chinese-Australian business reporter Cheng Lei on March 31, 2022, in Beijing. Credit: Associated Press

It said Chinese leader Xi Jinping's zero-COVID restrictions, which lasted through most of 2022, had "strangled" coverage plans, at a time when foreign journalists in China were "already battered in morale and greatly diminished in numbers" due to expulsions of colleagues and problems getting their professional accreditation, which relies on the journalists' J-visa, renewed.

During the year, 46% of respondents to the club's annual survey reported having been told to leave a place or denied access for "health and safety reasons" when they presented no health risk by China’s own standards. A similar proportion, or 47%, reported that they had faced barriers to their reporting due to the COVID-19 surveillance and tracker app mandated by the ruling Communist Party until December.

Sources harassed, police obstructing

Journalists working in China also face concerns over the impact their reporting will have on their sources, with 38% of respondents saying that at least one of their sources had been harassed, detained, called in for questioning by the authorities or otherwise suffered negative consequences for interacting with foreign journalists, up from only a quarter last year.

Chinese nationals working for foreign media organizations were also frequently targeted by the authorities, with 45% of respondents saying their Chinese colleagues had been harassed or intimated, compared with 40% in the previous year.

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A journalist gives his personal details to a health worker at a swab collection site for COVID-19 coronavirus at the Xiyuan hotel, a requirement for journalist for journalists who will cover China's 20th Communist Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 21, 2022. Credit: AFP

Chinese police continued to play a key role in preventing overseas journalists from doing their jobs, with 56% of respondents saying they had been "obstructed at least once” by police or other officials during 2022, while 31% said they had canceled trips to other parts of China due to pressure from officials.

More than half of foreign news organizations are still waiting for their visas to be renewed, while officials told applicants that the delays had been caused by "geopolitical tensions."

"In at least one instance, an American reporter with a valid visa and press card had their residence permit revoked and was barred from re-entering China after they left the country for a routine trip," the club said in a statement on its website. "They were eventually forced to relocate elsewhere after months of failed negotiations."

Getting into trouble

A journalist for a foreign outlet based in Beijing said they often dropped interview plans due to concerns about getting interviewees into trouble with the authorities.

It's a story that is corroborated by people who have gotten into trouble for talking to the foreign media.

"I have just gotten a request for an interview from a foreign media organization," a rights lawyer who declined to be named for fear of reprisals told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday, adding that he had turned the request down due to fears for his personal safety.

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Security personnel check journalists returning to a media hotel during the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing, Oct. 20, 2022. Credit: Associated Press

An activist living in a major city in the center-west of China said she had been repeatedly warned off talking to foreign media by police after taking part in recent protests against cuts to medical insurance payouts.

"The police station has told me they don't want me giving foreign media interviews," the activist said, declining to be named for fear of further reprisals.

"I got a call from one foreign media outlet today, and I told them it was inconvenient," she said, in a reference to a euphemism often used by activists to indicate they are under surveillance or political pressure.

"I am under total surveillance, including the monitoring of all phone calls and internet activity," she said.

‘Followed us the whole time’

The Beijing-based based foreign journalist said she is followed wherever she goes in China, and has been shadowed by unidentified personnel taking video footage and photos in a number of locations.

"I don't know who they were, but they followed us the whole time, taking photos and video of us, in Wuhan, Xiamen, and other places," she said, adding that she doesn't cover particularly sensitive news.

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Security guards talk as a police officer checks the identification of a man near the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, where Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former intern at state broadcaster China Central Television, filed her appeal case against CCTV host Zhu Jun, in Beijing, Aug. 10, 2022. Credit: Associated Press

In early December, she traveled to Wuhan to interview people coming out of three years of rolling lockdowns, mass quarantine and compulsory daily testing under the zero-COVID policy.

"We only went to the seafood market, Wuhan University and various other places to shoot video, but they followed us the entire time," she said.

While she has yet to suffer violence at the hands of police or security personnel, she said she knows of other journalists who have.

Journalist handcuffed, beaten and kicked

In November 2022, the International Federation of Journalists said Ed Lawrence of the BBC and Michael Peuker of Radio Télévision Suisse were detained while covering anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai, with Lawrence allegedly assaulted in the process.

"BBC correspondent Ed Lawrence was reporting on anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai when he was arrested, handcuffed and assaulted by Chinese police," the group said in a Nov. 28 statement.

One online video clip shows Lawrence being handcuffed by at least five police officers and forcefully escorted down a street by an unmasked policeman as he calls for his associate to contact the British Consulate, the group said.

Lawrence was released after several hours. But the BBC has raised concerns over the attack and arrest of an accredited journalist. It said Lawrence was beaten and kicked by police.

China ranked 175th out of 180 countries and regions in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index published by the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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