Over half of foreign correspondents say reporting conditions in China deteriorated last year, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s (FCCC) annual report on the country’s press freedom.

The report, published on Tuesday, said that 55 per cent of respondents believed that government interference had worsened over the course of the year – the largest proportion since 2011, and a 10 per cent increase from the year before. Not a single correspondent said conditions improved last year, the FCCC added.

media journalism reporters press freedom
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The survey was conducted last December among 204 correspondents in Beijing, 109 of whom represented media from 31 countries and regions. Not all respondents answered every question. Additionally, bureau chiefs from nine international news-gathering organisations were interviewed extensively for the report.

Xinjiang ‘interference’

Of the 27 correspondents who visited Xinjiang – a northwestern region populated predominantly by Turkic Muslims – 24 said that they experienced interference while there, the FCCC found. Xinjiang has seen a mass crackdown of ethnic minorities including the arbitrary detention of Uighurs in extrajudicial “re-education” camps since President Xi Jinping implemented a hardline policy in 2014 to tackle ethnic unrest.

The press club, which is not recognised by Beijing, added that surveillance and other forms of obstruction were prevalent in the region:

  • 96 per cent said that they were visibly followed;
  • 79 per cent were coerced into deleting reporting material by authorities;
  • 58 per cent were detained or had a colleague detained;
  • 10 journalists said they had interviews interrupted, seven were denied a hotel room, and three had equipment confiscated or damaged.
Urumqi Xinjiang police May 2014
Police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Photo: Wikicommons.

Nathan VanderKlippe, a correspondent for Globe and Mail, told the FCCC that he was subjected to intense surveillance while reporting on the region. “I was followed and tracked for nearly 1,600 kilometres, by at least 9 cars and 20 people – most of whom refused to identify themselves or their organisations,” he said. “I was detained numerous times. A police officer seized my camera and deleted pictures without my consent.”

Visa denials

The survey showed that Chinese authorities have refused to issue or renew visas for journalists in retaliation against negative news coverage. Megha Rajagopalan, former China bureau chief of Buzzfeed, was forced to leave the country last year after her application for a journalism visa was denied without explanation. Rajagopalan had covered Asia extensively since 2012, and her report on surveillance technology in Xinjiang won recognition at the 2018 Human Rights Press Awards.

Megha Rajagopalan
Megha Rajagopalan. Photo: Oslo Freedom Forum.

Visas with shortened terms were also issued in apparent retaliation for coverage that upset the government, including Voice of America (VOA) reporter Yibing Feng, who was given a six-month visa instead of the usual one-year term, and a New York Times journalist, who was issued a three-month visa.

“It’s harassment,” Bill Ide, bureau chief for VOA, told the press club. “They’re trying to send a message, but it’s unclear really what the message is, because we have asked them repeatedly to tell us specifically what led to the shortened visa and they have not given us any clarity.”

About half of respondents attended interviews at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prior to receiving their press credentials, while one in 10 said they had problems during the renewal process.

Local reporters and sources

Chinese employees were also found to be particularly at risk. Thirty-seven per cent of respondents said that their local colleagues had been subjected to harassment and intimidation by authorities, including being forcibly separated and denounced as “traitors,” the study found.

China police
File photo: Pixabay.

In addition, the report raised concerns over the safety of sources within China and outside of its borders, who are routinely subject to intimidation and harassment. According to the report, 34 per cent of respondents said that sources had been harassed, detained or questioned by authorities at least once.

‘Nuanced’ control

The report also noted areas of improvement – fewer correspondents were called to Ministry of State Security meetings, fewer reports of Chinese diplomats placing pressure on news organisations’ headquarters, and smooth visa processing procedures for 84 per cent of respondents. But it said that the government had adopted a more nuanced approach to control foreign media.

“The wider monitoring and pressure on sources stop journalists even before they can reach the news site,” FCCC president Hanna Sahlberg said. “There is a risk that even foreign media will shy away from stories that are perceived as too troublesome, or costly, to tell in China.”

She added that there were reports of Chinese officials offering to bug the homes of Hong Kong-based journalists for the Malaysian government, as a multibillion-dollar graft scandal involving Kuala Lumpur was under investigation in 2016.

China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, making it one of the most restrictive countries for foreign journalists to work in.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.