China Exerts Pressure on Foreign News Outlets

Beijing officials pressure international media to censor their coverage, new report says

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping / AP

China pressured international media outlets to censor their news coverage last year in addition to cracking down on domestic journalists, according to a new report.

Conditions for both domestic journalists and foreign correspondents in China have worsened considerably under President Xi Jinping. Journalists surveyed last year said they were increasingly subjected to harassment by authorities, sometimes violent in nature, as well as to visa delays and cyber attacks. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which released its annual report on press freedoms in China on Monday, said intimidation from officials in Beijing has now extended to foreign outlets.

Chinese embassy officials in Paris, Berlin, London, and Tokyo all reportedly pressured editors at publications based in those cities to alter their coverage and exert more control over their reporters in Beijing. One Chinese blogger, Su Yutong, was fired from the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle last August after she alleged that directors at the outlet met with the Chinese ambassador and then told their Chinese-language staff to tone down its coverage. A Deutsche Welle spokesman said at the time that Su was terminated because "she tweeted about internal issues" in a manner that "no company in the world would tolerate."

Deutsche Welle gave more prominence last year to columnists such as Frank Sieren, a Beijing-based media consultant who has business interests in the country and is known to be sympathetic to its leadership. The broadcaster has been criticized in the past for coverage that was overly supportive of the Chinese Communist Party.

IFJ specifically named three other overseas news services that were targeted by the Chinese government.

"At least three media companies—namely France 24, ARD TV (Germany), and the Financial Times—came under unusual Chinese government pressure after publishing news reports that angered the Chinese authorities," the report said. "Chinese embassy officials in Paris, Berlin, and London lodged direct complaints with senior editors, in an apparent effort to pressure them into restraining their reporters in Beijing. The Tokyo headquarters of Japanese media have received similar visits."

IFJ also condemned the repression of journalists covering Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last fall. At least 39 reporters were harassed, detained, or assaulted by the city’s police or by demonstrators opposed to the pro-democracy movement. Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997, and the city’s leaders are widely regarded to be under the sway of Beijing.

Lam Hei, a Hong Kong journalist quoted by IFJ, said Chinese citizens and authorities were heavily involved in the demonstrations against the pro-democracy movement.

"My fellow journalists and I, when reporting on those demonstrations, found that some protesters were from the [Chinese] Mainland," Lam said. "One source, who was not willing to be identified, said that these protesters were recruited by Mainlanders and funded and supported by provincial and municipal authorities, while the demonstrations were executed by their counterparts, the clansmen associations in Hong Kong."

Masked assailants lobbed gasoline bombs at the home and offices of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai—a supporter of the pro-democracy groups—earlier this month. Last year, attackers armed with meat cleavers badly harmed former newspaper editor Kevin Lau shortly after his paper, Ming Pao, replaced him with a pro-Beijing editor.

A commentary in the Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency said the recent terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that published cartoons lampooning Islam and other religions, demonstrated why "there should be limits on press freedom."