Press Freedom Under Attack in China

Survey: Two-thirds of journalists said they experienced harassment or violence in past year

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping / AP

Conditions for foreign journalists in China have worsened considerably in recent years, as threats and the use of violence against them by police have increased, according to a new report.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said in the report, released Friday, that 80 percent of journalists surveyed felt their work conditions had deteriorated or stayed the same since 2013. Foreign correspondents complained about a lack of travel access and a spike in intimidation against their sources, their media organizations, and themselves.

Two-thirds of journalists said they faced interference, harassment, or violence during their reporting efforts in the past year.

"In the years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there has been a notable increase in threats and use of violence against foreign journalists, their staff, and their sources; China’s restrictive and punitive visa practices have severely hampered global news organizations’ coverage of China," the report said. "In 2014, China is further away from making good on its pre-Olympic pledges to uphold a ‘policy of opening up to the outside world’ and to protect the lawful rights of foreign journalists."

Many of those harassed are TV crews and photographers. Uniformed police and plainclothes security agents seize tapes and memory cards, erase pictures, and sometimes damage equipment to prevent reporting on sensitive topics.

There were several reports of violence surrounding the trial of anti-corruption leader Xu Zhiyong earlier this year. Chinese authorities have jailed several leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, a group formed to press for more transparency from state officials, despite President Xi Jinping’s professed desire to tackle corruption.

"Uniformed police prevented us from standing outside the courthouse," said one British TV correspondent who covered the trial and responded to the FCCC survey. "Plainclothes state security personnel, some wearing sunglasses, hoods and scarves, manhandled us away. I was ushered over a low wall, seriously damaging my ankle. My hand was cut and bruised as I protected my camera. Dozens of unidentified plainclothes personnel then kept us two streets away, pushing and shoving us if we tried to film or report."

The FCCC urged Chinese authorities after the trial to stop harassing journalists and permit free reporting in public spaces, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to their concerns.

A German correspondent who traveled to the western region of Xinjiang told the FCCC that security agents banged on his hotel room door at night, stood watch outside, and called his room constantly. Authorities largely restrict foreign journalists’ access to Xinjiang and the Tibetan region in the south, both of which are home to ethnic and religious minorities. Muslim Uighurs in the West and Tibetans say police have used harsh measures to suppress their cultural independence.

Eighteen percent of reporters said they had trouble renewing their press cards or visas, twice as many as in the last survey. Authorities impose onerous requirements for visa renewal and have delayed approval for as long as two years.

All foreign employees with the New York Times and Bloomberg received their press cards and visas at the last moment possible. Both outlets previously published articles that investigated the private wealth of relatives of leading state officials.

"I received my press card three days before my visa expired, two hours before my dog was scheduled for quarantine and 20 hours before a removal company was scheduled to pack my belongings," one correspondent said in the survey.

Additionally, FCCC members said their computers were routinely targeted with malware and spyware. The group could not determine the origin of the cyber attacks.

China’s government has recently blocked the websites of several leading English-language news organizations—including the New York Times, the Guardian, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal—after they published stories about the family wealth of top Chinese officials. However, state-funded Chinese news organizations take advantage of the press freedoms in other countries to expand their global footprint, such as the American versions of China Daily and China Central Television (CCTV).

The FCCC called on Chinese authorities to allow reporting in Tibet and Xinjiang, provide more government information to journalists, shorten visa processing times, and end threats against citizens who speak to journalists. The group has 243 correspondent members in China from 31 countries.

China ranks 175 out of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.