Particularly when working on sensitive stories, the following reminders could help you, your sources and your assistants stay out of trouble:
– Assume the mobile phone of anyone under watch is being monitored. Change your phone chip strategically. For example, assume any call made from a chip that has been used to call a “sensitive” person will be monitored. Use public phones, and suggest sources use them too. In electronic communications, avoid sensitive words or names authorities may be listening for.
– Keep mobile phones possibly known to authorities switched off. Authorities can use your phone to track your location, and there are some reports that they may be able to use them as listening devices. Some correspondents recommend removing the phone’s battery completely.
– Try to avoid talking to people in public spaces in any area considered sensitive. Do phone interviews when possible or arrange to meet sources elsewhere, for example in a nearby town.
– To protect sources who may be at risk, conceal or don’t carry their contact information. Consider dictating notes and phone numbers to your headquarters to avoid exposing sources to police.
– If you are recording images or sound, use discreet cameras or recording equipment. Change your storage device often, and hide it. Authorities may try to confiscate or erase recordings.
– Password-protect your hard drive and individual files you want to keep private. Frequently change your password, mix letters with numbers and make it sufficiently hard to guess.
– See the “Online Security” section for tips on email, social media and Internet security.
Tips While Traveling
– If you don’t look Chinese, you will stick out far more in the provinces than in Beijing or Shanghai. But in most poor areas, all outsiders are obvious. If you are not ethnically Chinese, one useful option to consider is dressing like a backpacker. Even in areas where there are not a lot of them, this raises fewer immediate suspicions and people often assume you are a student (regardless of apparent age!).
– Local officials who don’t deal often with foreign reporters tend to be more wary of what impact your report might have and less aware of your rights under Chinese law, so make sure you always bring a Chinese and English copy of the national reporting regulations, in addition to contacts at the foreign ministry.
– Perhaps one of the most dangerous parts of any reporting trip in the provinces is the roads. Try especially to avoid driving at night. Make sure you take a car suitable for the conditions. If you are going off the main roads in mountain areas, a four-wheel drive vehicle with good clearance is advisable.
Traveling To Sensitive Areas
– Take a train or purchase plane tickets at the airport, as late as possible, to avoid alerting authorities to where you are headed.
– When on the ground, choose transportation that makes you the least conspicuous, for example a local taxi instead of a hired car, or a train or public bus if you blend in.
– Consider changing your car when you cross provincial borders so your number plate doesn’t mark you out as an outsider.
— If possible, avoid spending the night in “sensitive” regions. Hotels will report foreign guests, particularly those with journalist visas, to the police, so check in as late as possible and check out before business hours. In extremely sensitive situations, arrive at night and leave before dawn.
– Tell a contact in advance where you are going, your rough plans, and what to do should you send an emergency SOS message.
– There have been a growing number of cases of plainclothes thugs attacking journalists or their vehicles in sensitive areas. Although some are thought to be employed by local governments or developers, they are not officially accountable to any government body and do not identify themselves. If you encounter such groups, try to stay calm and not to antagonize them. Alert friends to the situation. If possible try to attract a crowd of witnesses. Where possible, get in and out fast enough to avoid giving them time to get there.
– For specific reminders on areas such as Tibet, see the Sensitive topics and areas section.
— Local authorities may contact English-speaking police once they notice a foreigner in the crowd. That means you have only a few minutes to get material and gather contact details for participants, before encountering interference.
– Leave early if you want to do further reporting, or hide notes and recordings and wait for police if you want to report on police interference.
– Police may try to detain you by asking for your passport and other documentation, and often try to confiscate or delete your reporting. This has included strip searches of some reporters covering very sensitive topics, so be aware that concealing tapes or notes in your clothing may not be enough to protect them.
– If you are personally threatened by violence from what may be hired thugs, try to attract a crowd of witnesses. Stay calm; don’t get aggravated.
– If there is potential for a rowdy crowd, plan an escape route, and make contingency plans with your colleagues.
The foreign ministry organizes periodic reporting trips around China, to “off-limits” areas such as Tibet and to places of interest across the country, usually with a themed agenda (e.g. the food industry).
These can be exhausting, often with packed days (particularly in sensitive areas, to ward off any individual outings to talk to locals) and interviews are often with uncommunicative officials more used to docile state media.
But they can also give you access to places and industries — e.g. the oil industry — that are otherwise very hard to cover, so are worth considering for this. Details are posted regularly on the International Press Center Web site.