Aug. 8, 2007 · Despite a promise that China would allow the foreign media more freedom this year, Chinese police and other government officials are engaging in widespread — possibly more covert — harassment of journalists, an international organization has found.
The report issued by Human Rights Watch found that the freedoms promised to journalists have largely not been experienced, documenting through mostly anonymous interviews with journalists that surveillance and intimidation of reporters may simply be less obvious.
For instance, the study notes that many journalists have reported being followed or intimidated by bands of “occasionally violent” plainclothes thugs. Because they operate “unrestrained by Chinese government” or appear to be acting in concert, journalists say they believe plainclothes police officers make up the majority of these groups but cannot prove it.
One correspondent said the “use of such thugs, whether plainclothes police or not, reflected a growing level of sophistication in Chinese security forces’ efforts at distancing identifiable, uniformed police from acts of harassment and intimidation,” according to the report.
The temporary guidelines adopted by the government, which expire in October 2008, were adopted in response to concerns raised about China’s human rights record during its successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Human Rights Watch noted that some correspondents had reported increased freedom since the rules went into effect in January and said the rules allowed them to do more controversial stories, such as interviewing dissidents. However, the report said most of the reporters indicated “widespread disregard and denial of the new reporting freedoms.”
For instance, an Associated Press photographer told the organization that five plainclothes police officers tried to push her into a car when she was documenting petitioners in Beijing in March, as uniformed officers looked on.
New York Times reporter David Barboza, his Chinese assistant and a photographer were detained for 10 hours by factory officials while reporting on toxic lead paint found in factory exports to the United States. They were finally released after Barboza wrote a statement saying he had not asked for permission to take pictures, the report states.
Some correspondents said the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been helpful in dealing with intimidation from local officials. In other cases, ministry officials were powerless or engaged in harassment themselves, the report states.
After reporting stories viewed as negative, foreign correspondents are sometimes called in to the ministry and given what the reporters consider “implicit warnings.” These carry weight because the ministry can deny journalists work visas. Intimidation of Chinese media assistants is also reported as widespread.
The organization urged the Chinese government to educate the public about the regulations, to punish officials who refuse to honor them, and to make the temporary regulations permanent and extend them to Chinese journalists.
In another report issued this week focusing more on the status of Chinese journalists in the run-up to the Olympics, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that freedoms for foreign reporters were improving, but “restrictions on the domestic press had tightened.”
The committee said the detention of foreign journalists is typically “more inconvenience than hardship,” contrasting it to the much harsher treatment of Chinese journalists, who are exempted from the new temporary freedoms and continue to face censorship, threats and prosecution.
Twenty-nine journalists are imprisoned in China because of their work, according to the committee, more than in any other country.