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  • Statements | 1 January, 2008 (17:32)

    Detentions Tarnish China’s Free Reporting Pledge

    As China enters the year of the Beijing Olympics, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) has identified hot spots where journalists have experienced repeated violations of China’s new reporting regulations.

    “While the year-old regulations have improved overall reporting conditions for foreign journalists, we are particularly troubled by repeated violations in several areas — including in Beijing and Hebei — where plainclothes thugs have intimidated or physically assaulted foreign journalists,” says FCCC President Melinda Liu. “Police should investigate the attacks, and assailants should be prosecuted.”

    The new temporary reporting regulations that came into effect on Jan. 1, 2007 state that foreign journalists may travel freely and interview anyone who consents during the Olympic period, ending after the Paralympics in October. Previously, reporters needed permission to do interviews and risked being detained if they did not get it. Since January 1, Foreign Ministry officials, in some cases, have made extensive efforts to persuade local authorities to free detained foreign correspondents.

    However, in addition to reports of easier travel and better access to officials, the FCCC received more than 180 reports of reporting interference* in 2007.

    At an illicit detention center in a Beijing suburb there were two cases of violence against foreign correspondents. Over a dozen thugs surrounded one reporter, tackled him to the ground and kicked him in the back. They then pinned him to a chair and one man made a death threat, adding to the tension. The correspondent was investigating claims the building was used to imprison petitioners coming to the capital to air grievances.

    There were three separate incidents of detentions in Shengyou Village, Hebei Province, where six villagers died in a clash over a land dispute in 2005. One reporter said she was confronted by a dozen men she believed were plainclothes police. They knocked her to the ground and erased one of her video tapes. Local foreign affairs officials later facilitated her release.

    A number of journalists reporting in Xinjiang and Tibet said they were followed or detained, or their sources were intimidated. “The FCCC is concerned local authorities are still preventing many Chinese citizens who agree to be interviewed from talking to foreign journalists,” said Liu.

    The FCCC is also concerned by central government attempts to compel media organizations to drop certain interviews or news stories. Several organizations reported to the FCCC that they, and in some cases their overseas headquarters, were warned in advance to cancel scheduled interviews with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian or the Dalai Lama, or face “the consequences.” It was not known how Chinese authorities learned of these planned interviews.

    Despite the problems foreign correspondents continue to face in the field, the FCCC believes the new regulations have been a positive step that have brought China closer to meeting international standards. More than 20,000 foreign journalists are expected to visit Beijing and report on the Games. The FCCC welcomes Minister of the State Council Information Office Cai Wu’s suggestion, made at a December 27, 2007 news conference on China’s policy of opening wider to the world, that the temporary regulations might remain in effect even after the Beijing Olympics. The FCCC hopes that as a lasting legacy of the Games the regulations will be made permanent, and will be fully implemented nationwide, including in Tibet and Xinjiang.

    APPENDIX: EXAMPLES OF REPORTING INTERFERENCE* 2007

    BEIJING: REPORTER TACKLED AND KICKED BY THUGS AT ILLICIT DETENTION CENTER
    SEPT. 10, 2007–Reuters correspondent Chris Buckley was tackled to the ground, kicked in the back, and punched by more than a dozen thugs while investigating a claim about an illicit detention center in Beijing for petitioners coming to the capital to air grievances. Buckley was attacked while leaving the center, located at the Beijing liason office of Nanyang City, Henan Province. The thugs took his bag with notes, a mobile phone and camera. They pinned him to a chair. One man added to the tension by threatening to kill the reporter. Buckley’s attackers then called the police. He was only allowed to make phone calls after a senior officer arrived. Once Buckley could phone the Foreign Ministry, its staff were prompt and helpful. After that call, the senior police officer returned Buckley’s possessions and recorded his official complaint. He has heard of no police follow-up to prosecute his assailants.

    BEIJING: TV TEAM ROUGHED UP, CAMERA DAMAGED BY THUGS
    SEPT. 14, 2007– A reporting team from Britain’s Channel 4 was assaulted by thugs, and then detained by police following interviews with petitioner “inmates” at an illegal detention center in the outskirts of Beijing. The center is operated out of the Nanyang City government of Henan’s Beijing liason office. The thugs damaged the journalists’ camera and tried to destroy their footage. The reporters called the police, who stopped the violence but did not follow through when the reporters tried to press charges of assault. The police told the reporters they couldn’t leave until they signed a confession admitting they’d illegally entered a government office. The reporters said they were not aware they had been filming in a government office. The journalists said a woman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said she could not assist their release. The two visiting reporters, Andrew Carter and Aidan Hartley, were detained for six hours. They were released after destroying a tape. Their Chinese fixer, Dean Peng was detained for 10 hours. Police issued an official warning to Peng accusing him of disturbing “administrative order” in the government liason office. Peng is seeking to cancel the warning on the grounds that the journalists’ reporting was conducted legally. He has appealed the case to the Fengtai district court

    HEBEI: REPORTER BEATEN, TAPE DESTROYED IN LAND DISPUTE VILLAGE
    NOV. 20, 2007–Swiss TV correspondent Barbara Luthi and her cameraman and local assistant were roughed up and detained for seven hours in Shengyou Village, Dingzhou County, Hebei Province. One of their tapes was erased by the authorities. The Swiss TV team had been interviewing villagers at the site of a land dispute that in 2005 resulted in a pitched battle that claimed six lives. “I have been interrogated by police before, but this was on a whole different scale,” said Luthi. “It is the first time I have been physically beaten.” She said six cars drove up containing ten to12 men, who claimed to be local villagers. She believes they were plainclothes police. Two of the cars did not have number plates. She says the men were “quite brutal.” They twisted her arm, and grabbed a camera and bags. In the struggle, Luthi fell to the ground. The issue was eventually resolved when the plainclothes men called the local foreign affairs bureau.

    HEBEI: TWO JOURNALISTS DETAINED REPORTING ON FORCED EVICTION OF FARMERS
    SEPT. 12, 2007–Reporter Robert Saiget and photographer Goh Chai Hin of Agence France-Presse were detained for nearly five hours in Shengyou Village, Dingzhou County, Hebei Province, where they were confirming reports of an August 28th clash between police and villagers. The violence followed the reported recent death of a local farmer from injuries suffered in June 2005, when hundreds of armed thugs killed six and injured 51 farmers while seeking to evict them from their land to make way for a power plant. Local police accused the AFP journalists of illegal reporting and demanded the names of their contacts in the village. The journalists were released after they showed the local Foreign Affairs officials a copy of the new Olympic reporting rules.

    XINJIANG: REPORTER INTERROGATED, SEARCHED, SOURCES INTIMIDATED
    AUG. 2007— During a reporting trip to Xinjiang, the Muslim Uighur region in China’s far west, reporter Brice Pedroletti of France’s Le Monde newspaper was followed and searched, and his sources were intimidated. Pedroletti visited the apartment of the daughter of exiled human rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer. The family told him it was not “convenient” to talk. Two days later three plainclothes officers took Pedroletti to a backroom at his hotel and interrgated him for 45 minutes before he rushed off to catch a flight. He was frequently followed during his seven-day trip to Kashgar and surrounding counties, where he was investigating claims of abuses of teenage Uighur girls sent to work in factories in eastern China. One source told Pedroletti he was questioned for two hours the day after speaking to the foreign reporter in his shop. Pedroletti said a family he visited was questioned after he left by men in a car that was shadowing him. Before crossing the Kirghizstan border police searched Pedroletti’s bag and examined his photographs. “The constant surveillance prevented me from hiring a good interpreter and freely reporting,” said Pedroletti. “Sources were scared to talk to me, and I did not want to put them in danger.”

    TIBET: INTERVIEWS INTERRUPTED, JOURNALISTS ORDERED TO WRITE SELF-CENSORSHIP PLEDGE
    AUG., 2007– A European documentary team–which the government had granted permission to report in Tibet–was repeatedly harassed by local authorities during its visit there. Authorities interrupted two interviews, once because the Tibetan language was used, and once because authorities appeared concerned the interviewee would say something critical about life in Tibet. In some locations, authorities withdrew previously granted permission to film due to “safety” concerns. Authorities also asked the team to erase footage, which the team refused to do. When the team reached the border with Nepal, an accompanying foreign affairs official from Bejing said if the team did not sign a pledge about how it would use its footage, it would have to return to Lhasa to submit its film to censorship authorities. The team felt it had no choice but to sign a document saying its reporting material would “never be used to deliberately uglify Tibet and China… (or)… be used to depict any prostitution, environmental, sanitation, and public dissatisfaction problems.”

    ANHUI: SOURCE, REPORTERS DETAINED AFTER INTERVIEW WITH YOUNG FARM GIRL
    NOV. 9, 2007–An Al-Jazeera television team was detained in a village in Anhui province, about an hour outside of Hefei. Melissa Chan says the team had been interviewing a young farm girl for a “very benign story on the life of a little girl.” She says local officials stopped the team and “insisted we ‘lunch’ with them.” The reporters said they had to get a plane back to Beijing. The officials persisted, and brought the Al-Jazeera team in for “a cup of tea.” Chan reports: “Tea dragged on for an hour, and then we discovered they had dragged the farmer we had spoken to, to the police station. The situation escalated, with us insisting they let him go before we leave. We then told them we’d go to the police station ourselves, at which point officials locked the gates so we could not leave the premises.” The team was detained for about three hours, with no explanation. When the correspondents showed the officials a copy of the reporting regulations, the officials said they were aware of the new rules. Chan says the Al-Jazeera team ended up calling the Foreign Ministry in Beijing for help and, “to their credit,” officials there made the relevant calls to get the team released.

    * “Reporting interference” includes violence, destruction of journalistic materials, detention, harassment of sources and staff, interception of communications, denial of access to public areas, being questioned in an intimidating manner by authorities, being reprimanded officially, being followed, and being subjected to other obstacles not in keeping with international practices.