Journalism Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

When a group of unidentified thugs interrupted five Chinese journalists interviewing relatives of the victims of the mid-August Fenghuang bridge collapse, in which 34 people died in central China’s Hunan province, what followed was depressingly familiar. The journalists, who included a reporter from the government mouthpiece People’s Daily, were kicked and punched, and when police finally arrived on the scene, they didn’t arrest the assailants — they arrested the journalists.

The incident is yet another reminder of how the Chinese government’s commitment to media freedom, enshrined in both the country’s constitution and international agreements, as well as its pledges to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), are routinely violated or ignored by state security forces and anonymous thugs who appear to operate at official behest.

Not that any such reminder was really necessary.

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Watch report, “You Will Be Harassed and Detained: China Media Freedoms Under Assault Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games” documented the government’s chokehold on both foreign correspondents and Chinese journalists. Such developments run contrary to assurances by Chinese officials in 2001 that the Beijing Olympic Games would lend new impetus to the development of human rights there.

The squeeze on journalists is at odds with new temporary regulations in place from January 1, 2007 to October 17, 2008 as part of the government’s media freedom commitments to the IOC. While those regulations appeared to remove long-standing regulatory handcuffs requiring foreign correspondents to get foreign ministry permission for interviews, in practice the freedoms enshrined in the regulations have been routinely ignored.

While some journalists have praised the temporary regulations for finally making it possible to access certain high-profile dissidents, foreign correspondents in China are still routinely subjected to harassment, detention and intimidation in the course of simply trying to do their jobs.

Many foreign journalists who have tested the temporary regulations say the new freedoms are being ignored or denied and that correspondents must still apply for rarely-granted official permits for reporting visits to Tibet. Some correspondents say that even China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has itself intimidated press outlets.

In one such case of attempted intimidation, the foreign ministry actively pressured a foreign news agency based in Beijing to scuttle coverage of a “sensitive” topic by one of its bureaus outside of China. The ministry retaliated by refusing a work visa when the agency refused to comply.

In addition, the regulations explicitly exclude from protection Chinese journalists and Chinese nationals who are assistants, researchers, translators, or sources for foreign news organizations or correspondents.

That exclusion highlights the much higher risks Chinese journalists face compared to their foreign counterparts. While the worst official reprisal a foreign correspondent may face in China for unfavorable reporting is refusal to grant or renew a visa, Chinese journalists face arrest and imprisonment for incurring the anger of the Chinese government.

Chinese journalists are already closely monitored by state security agencies to ensure that their reporting doesn’t stray from that of the official propaganda line and don’t touch on taboo topics affecting “social stability,” such as unrest in Tibet and the Muslim Uighur region of Xinjiang or coverage of Taiwan or prominent dissidents. They are also subject to penalties ranging from dismissal to prosecutions for violating vaguely-worded regulations against “spreading rumors” or violations of “news discipline,” which are prone to arbitrary interpretation by police and the judiciary.

For proof of those hazards, you could try to ask Zhao Yan, a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing. But you would have to wait another month or so, as his three year prison sentence for a fraud conviction isn’t up until September. His case was marred by multiple violations of due process including the refusal of the court to allow Zhao's lawyers to call witnesses on his behalf.

Or you could ask Wang Daqi, editor of the magazine Ecology, who was jailed for one year in January 2003 for “incitement to overthrow the government” for publishing articles about the Cultural Revolution. Zan Aizong, a journalist for the Haoyang Bao in Zhejiang province was detained for a week in August 2006 on charges of “spreading rumors harmful to society” for reporting on the demolition of a Protestant church, and subsequently lost his job.

Ahead of every Chinese Communist Party Congress, the government routinely intensifies its already carefully stage-managed news coverage. That clampdown is part of the tightened security precautions and heightened official concerns about potential threats to "social stability" that occur ahead of and during each Party Congress, which are held every five years, due to their importance as the forum where the future leadership of the Party is unveiled.

This year, official efforts to script the media’s message before the Congress have gone so far as to echo those of the era of Chairman Mao Zedong, with five newspapers, the People’s Daily, Guangming Daily, Economic Daily, People’s Liberation Army Daily and the Beijing Daily all running near-identical front pages on August 19.

Pre-Party Congress media control efforts have also included a two-month crackdown on “fake news” and “illegal news coverage” which will run from August 15 to the beginning of the long-awaited Congress on October 15. While fake news reports and individuals who impersonate journalists for personal financial gain are a legitimate, widespread concern in China, one highlighted by the recent uproar over falsified stories about fake food, it is highly plausible that the government will use such vaguely-worded directives to punish journalists who publish factual reports of scandal, disaster and official malfeasance may run afoul of the official crackdown.

The Chinese government has apparently forgotten that it was similar directive that prompted the initial cover-up of the early stages of the SARS outbreak in Guangdong province in late 2002, allowing the illness to spread within China and beyond. That same impulse has contributed measurably to other global debacles, including recalls of tainted food, toys, and tires, causing international confidence in Chinese producers to plummet, worsening situations in which transparency and honesty might have mitigated much of the negative consequences of such incidents.

Despite the political pressures of the 17th Party Congress and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government must realize that the lack of a free media poses a far greater danger to the country’s safety than press reports that shine an unflattering light on the complex realities of modern China.

The truths of corruption, public health scandals, environmental crises, and abusive local authorities may be inconvenient. But if the Chinese government continues to repress the media in dealing with these issues, the reality it faces will likely be much worse than inconvenient. It will be disastrous.

{mosloadposition AUG19}

(Phelim Kine is a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch)