Correspondents working for Swiss television were harassed by local officials in Yunnan for several days and blocked from doing their work, despite having official invitations and permission to film. Sources and a Chinese assistant were also intimidated. Two correspondents tell the story below:
From Barbara Luethi, Swiss correspondent in Beijing and producer on this project:
“The Swiss TV team of four traveled to Yunnan province to produce the last part of a documentary about the Mekong River from Nov. 30-Dec. 9. After filming in Mengsa town, Gengma county and interviewing people relocated for the Xiaowan dam, we were stopped by local officials. Although I have a press card issued by Beijing and my cameraman was traveling on a journalist visa, we were told that we are not allowed to film in Yunnan as there are special rules. They failed to specify the rules. We had an official invitation from the state-owned Huaneng Group (headed by the son of former premier Li Peng) to visit the dam, yet we were escorted by a police car five hours away from the dam to Dali. We were told that we are not allowed to come back to do an already arranged interview with the Huaneng deputy CEO. The foreign affairs official from Lincang, Mrs. Yang Fengmei, told us that she has never seen a press card before and did not know about the new reporting rules for foreign media. When we asked her to show us the special rules they were referring to, they said the rules are not written down.
We left the hotel in Dali at 3 a.m. to avoid detection and drove back to the dam for the interview. We got a warm welcome from the management of the Huaneng Group. They knew about our filming with the relocated people and were still very happy to receive us. They would have been very upset if we would not have made it as they flew in from Kumning to talk to us. During the day and over dinner they thanked us for coming and filming, and invited the Swiss TV to report on the dam opening party next year.
The next day we drove to Weixi County where we had an oral invitation from the school master of the state-operated school. We wanted to show the live of the Lisu people and how they are integrated and supported by the government. We started filming in the morning and soon we started to be followed by a policewoman, and four officials from the local government. They were with us all day and observed filming. When we wanted to leave and continue our journey along the Mekong River to Deqin, they said we were not allowed. We had an invitation letter from Mr. Awa, head of tourism in Shangri-la, inviting us to film scenic spots in Deqin and Shangri-la. Despite that official invitation, the officials from Weixi blocked our way and forced us on an eight-hour drive away from the Mekong to Shangri-La town. The whole trip was very dangerous as they made us drive at night and our driver was very tired and started to fall asleep. We did not plan on an eight-hour trip in a different direction. The team who came from Switzerland was very upset as our whole purpose was to travel along the Mekong. Also, the Weixi officials had no clue about the new rules for journalists, did not know what my press card was and ignored our official invitation.
They eventually brought us to Shangri-la but using a different route than that we needed for our documentary. There, we were again followed and controlled by local officials. Our interviewee, a local scenery photographer was harassed and told not talk to us. The boss of the tourism office in Shangri-la who invited us, Mr. Awa was not in town and his deputy had no clue how to deal with the situation. Every night they came to the hotel and wanted us to write letters promising not to say anything negative about the region. It was completely absurd as we are doing a tourist piece on Shangri-la.
When we finally reached Mr. Awa over the phone he was very angry with his office and his deputy and his crew came to the hotel to apologize for the way they treated us.
We had to endure harassment during the whole trip. Twice we were forced to drive hours away from our intended locations. We were guarded in hotels by local police and authorities. The whole trip became much more expensive than planned and we filmed only a portion of what was needed. We all had proper accreditations and official invitations. Various local officials repeatedly broke the 2008 rules for foreign journalists.”
From Tomas Etzler of Czech TV, who later flew in to attempt to finish filming:
“I traveled to Yunnan with my assistant on Saturday, December 12. I was supposed to film for half a day some material for the Swiss National TV, which their team could not do because of harassment and interference. I was also filming the Mekong River for the Czech TV.
We flew to Lincang, where we were picked up by a local farmer from Mengsa, Gengma county, his cousin and a driver. After driving for two hours, on the way to the farmer’s village, we stopped for a dinner. Immediately after entering the restaurant, two men followed us in and showed us Public Security Bureau badges. They must have been following us from the airport in Lincang. They took us to the Public Security Bureau office in a nearby town of Fengqing, Lincang County. In a conference room, there were officials from Public Security Bureau, Foreign Office, Propaganda Office, County Leaders, Environmental Protection Bureau and Construction Bureau already waiting for us. They were ready — that’s why I think they picked us up at the airport and had time to get ready for us. First, they claimed they have no idea about new reporting rules. Later, they switched to saying that the new rules do not apply to Yunnan. Then they told me that we broke the law. When I asked them which specific law, the answer was that we misunderstood them that we broke not a law but a rule.
When I asked them which rule, they replied it is an unwritten rule, regarding the threat of H1N1 virus and that’s why no foreigners are allowed there. When I asked them when I am allowed back, they said they do not know. At the end I was told that when: “You foreign journalists show up somewhere, crowds gather around you and may cause social disturbance.”
The whole conversation was filmed. They told us it was for local TV, but I find that hard to believe. At the end the county leader called a taxi for us and told us to leave immediately. There was no way to reason with these people. When I told the main speaker, Mrs. Yang Fengmei, the deputy chief of the Foreign Affairs Bureau in Lincang (the same woman who harassed the Swiss crew some 10 days earlier) that she is breaking the rules on foreign journalists and that I will complain to MOFA and IPC, she laughed at us and said “Please, do so.”
They also attacked my assistant that she should be ashamed to work for foreign media. I do not know exactly what was said but she looked very upset and frightened.
I did not film a frame of video. I did not even have an opportunity to take camera out of my back-pack. I was in Yunnan barely for a few hours when I was picked up. Me and my assistant had all the accreditations needed to work as journalists in China.
The farmer who picked us up was also questioned but was later released without harm.”