Two years before more than 20,000 international journalists descend on Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games on August 8, 2008, a survey by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China shows that Chinese authorities frequently detain foreign reporters, and occasionally use violence against them and their sources.
Since 2004 – the year in which the Olympic torch was handed to Beijing – the club has received reports of 72 incidents of harassment involving journalists from 15 countries. Police detained foreign journalists on at least 38 occasions, mostly while the media were covering stories related to social issues such as anti-pollution protests, land disputes, and the plight of AIDS victims. On 10 occasions reporters and their sources suffered physical harassment including a clubbing, punchings and strip searches. In 21 cases, notes and images were destroyed.
“China’s controls on foreign media are not in keeping with Beijing’s commitment to the International Olympic Committee to allow free coverage, and are an affront to the Olympic spirit,” said FCCC President Melinda Liu. “We urge China to quickly adopt the practices of press freedom expected of Olympic hosts.”
Liu urged the Chinese government to permanently abolish rules that are interpreted to make the reporting of sensitive social issues an offence, and which also require foreign correspondents to get permission before making reporting trips outside of the cities where they are based.
These rules – particularly articles 14 and 15 of the regulations for foreign journalists – are the basis for the detentions of correspondents and the harassment of their sources and assistants. Such controls are contrary to the norms expected of Olympic hosts. In many other countries, Chinese journalists do not suffer such impositions.
In 2001, Beijing made a promise: “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” said Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing Olympic Games bid committee. “We are confident that the Games coming to China not only promotes our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health, and human rights.”
The FCCC calls on China to honor that promise. In trade, investment and many other areas, China has benefited from greater openness and the adoption of international standards. The same can be true in the area of media reform. In recent years, there have been some improvements – for example the relaxation of rules about where correspondents live and whom they hire – but the problem of harrassement and obstruction continues. Time is running out before the Olympics. The number of journalists visiting China will be double that of athletes in 2008. The FCCC hopes they will receive as warm a welcome. We would strongly welcome more dialogue with the authorities to ensure that a more open media environment will be one of the lasting legacies of the Games.
FCCC SURVEY: Summary of findings
The following shows cases of detention, violence or obstruction reported by foreign journalists since 2004, the year China received the Olympic torch.
Incidents reported between 2004-July 2006
Total No. of Incidents: 72 incidents
Detentions (Typically 30 min. to half a day): 38 incidents (85 people, some more than once.)
Journalist Turned Away: 33 incidents (69 people)
Physical Harassment of Journalists: 8 incidents (10 people)
Physical Harassment of Sources: 2 incidents
Images, Notes Destroyed/Confiscated: 21 incidents
No. of Locations: total 13 Provinces
Rural incidents: 27
Urban incidents: 36 (25 in Beijing)
No. of Nationalities of Media Reporting Interference: 15
Surveys were distributed to foreign correspondents in Beijing in spring and summer 2006. In addition to the above, there were 15 incidents reported before 2004. Over a half dozen correspondents said they had experienced too many cases of harassment to remember them all. Case studies follow.
FCCC SURVEY: Case studies
The still-pending cases of Zhao Yan – the New York Times research assistant who has been in detention for almost two years – and Ching Cheong – the Straits Times correspondent who is accused of spying for Taiwan – are well known. Following are other examples of harrassment and violence revealed by the survey.
ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER CLUBBED
Associated Press photographer Ng Han Guan was clubbed to the ground after he took a picture of plainclothes security personnel manhandling AFP photographer Fred Brown during disturbances outside Beijing’s Workers Stadium after the 2004 Asia Cup. While Ng was on the ground, they kicked him and smashed his camera. He required hospital treatment for a large scalp wound. Although he identified his assailant – who was later photographed talking to a policeman – and lodged charges, no punishment has been meted out
BBC CREW DETAINED AND STRIP SEARCHED
Two BBC journalists were detained and strip searched while they were researching a land dispute in Dingzhou, Hebei Province in July 2005. Police intercepted them on their way from the village, shoved the cameraman, Al Go, into a car, and conducted intrusive searches on the reporters and their driver.
ACTIVIST PARALYSED AFTER TALKING TO GERMAN TV CREW
A Chinese land rights activist, Fu Xiancai, was left paralyzed in June 2006 after a beating on his way home from a police station, where officers had warned him not to complain to foreign journalists. He had recently given an interview to the German news station, ARD, in which he criticized the Three Gorges Dam. Police say Mr Fu broke his own neck.
RADIO FRANCE INTERNATIONALE REPORTER BEATEN BY THUGS
Radio France Internationale reporter Abel Segretin was pulled off his motorbike when he attempted to cover a rural protest story in Taishi village, Guangdong Province in October 2005. For more than 30 minutes, thugs paid by the local authorities harassed, punched and abused him and Leu Siew Ying, a journalist from the South China Morning Post. When police arrived, they seized the journalists rather than the thugs. Segretin was detained for three hours and warned that he should not report what he had seen. The following day, local activist Lu Banglie was beaten by thugs when he tried to take a Guardian correspondent into the village.
JAPANESE REPORTER ASSAULTED BY POLICE AT ANTI-WAR PROTEST
A Japanese TV cameraman, who has asked to remain nameless, was injured by police in Beijing during an anti-Iraq war demonstration on Wangfujing, one of China’s busiest shopping streets, in 2003. Five policemen shoved him into the car and stamped on his neck. He was detained for half a day. The injury to his neck took a month to recover.