The situation for foreign journalists in China has never been good. While freedom of speech is included in the constitution, in practice censorship has been widespread throughout the country for decades.
Recently, however, the situation see the situation has become to look untenable.
Consider the case of Mike Forsythe, a reporter who is said to have blown the whistle on Bloomberg News allegedly pulling its coverage of stories critical of China. Forsythe has since left the company. In the past Bloomberg News had published stories that were reported to have angered Chinese officials, most notably a story about Xi Jinping’s family and their allegedly huge wealth, but the backlash was severe — following the Xi story, Bloomberg.com was blocked in China and there were reports of death threats. Many observers believe that the company has been worried about the potential business fallout from further critical stories.
When critical stories do come out, it is not easy for them to make an impact within China. The Observer notes that the New York Times ran a story last week that sounded a lot like the story Bloomberg allegedly killed (about the links between he daughter of former-prime minister Wen Jiabao and JP Morgan). It is not easily accessible in China, however, as The Times’ Chinese-language website has been blocked since late 2012. It is widely believed that the block was retaliation for a story about possible corruption amongst Wen Jiabao’s family.
Journalists who work on critical stories frequently find themselves denied visas needed for reporting in China. In 2012, Al Jazeera’s respected Melissa Chen became the first journalist to be expelled from the country in almost 15 years. Recently Paul Mooney, who had been hoping to accept a position with Reuters in Beijing, was denied a visa.
Mooney described the experience in an interview with Bob Dietz for the Committee to Protect Journalists:
Reuters offered me a position as a features writer in Beijing in February and they submitted my visa application in early March. I had an interview with the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco in April, which is a now part of the process of getting a journalist visa. After that, the ministry provided no information at all. Nothing. So there was no animosity, from what I know. Reuters checked with MoFA from time to time to see about my visa, but the answer was always that they were working on my background investigation, which didn’t make much sense as I’d lived in Beijing for 18 consecutive years. From their monitoring of me during my more than two decades of reporting on China, they knew quite a bit about me. I assume that MoFA, which actually lacks any real power in things like this, was waiting for security agencies to give their approval for my visa. When MoFA informed Reuters on November 8, which is Journalists’ Day in China, by the way, that they would not grant me a visa, no reason was given, and that’s because they don’t have a valid reason for doing this. In the entire 18 years that I worked as an accredited journalist in China, and during the past eight months, no one from the government had ever made any critical remarks about my work, although, as I said, I’m sure they were not happy with my reporting. The purpose of not giving any justification for the delay in granting a visa is part of their program of intimidation, a way for them to make journalists squirm.
While working in China, I had to renew my visa every year, and each year I expected to have trouble–but I never did. Things are different now, however. The situation around the country is getting worse and the Chinese leadership is getting increasingly nervous. Their decision to keep me out of China now is an indication of how much the Chinese leadership has regressed in recent years. This is the worst atmosphere for freedom of expression that I can remember since the early 1990s. Also, I believe that they think refusing to renew the visa of someone inside China is far more sensitive than not issuing a visa to someone who is applying from outside the country–I was forced to leave China in September 2012 because I was not able to get a new journalist visa before my previous visa expired. Once I was in the US, Beijing was less afraid of the fallout from not giving me a visa.
Mooney goes on to tell Dietz that the situation has “gotten much worse, but that’s been the trend for several years now.” A recent study from the Center for International Media Assistance concurred with these findings.
What’s worrying about all this is that the big stories in China aren’t going to go away anytime soon — if anything there’s going to be a lot more of them. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnoes (who, perhaps un-coincidentally, recently left China) points out in a column today, events like the recent Third Plenum are simply too important for the world to not be informed about:
The leaders who met in Beijing this month were deciding not simply what reforms to undertake but what of kind of country they want to leave for future generations. It is a story that nobody can afford to ignore.
And as tough as the situation is for foreign journalists, it’s far worse for Chinese journalists, who tend to have their reporting curtailed and their publications subject to direct censorship. The recent detention of New Express writer Chen Yongzhou and his subsequent televised confession did little to calm concerns.
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