Media Freedom Crushed in the Lead-Up to the Games

July 9, 2008 Updated: October 1, 2015
A Reporters Without Borders Chinese language website blocked in Beijing. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
A Reporters Without Borders Chinese language website blocked in Beijing. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch yesterday published a 71-page report on media censorship in China in the lead-up to the Olympic Games in August. It details the widespread harassment of foreign media inside China, and juxtaposes remarks made by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials on lifting media restrictions with the steps taken to silence any critical views.

These include obstructing, harassing, and jailing journalists, threatening to deny accreditation, and intimidating, following, and monitoring sources. The report also contains a section with personal testimonies that detail repeated death threats, illegal detentions, and beatings, meted out to journalists and their sources alike.

In 2001, in an effort to assuage the concerns of the International Olympic Committee in awarding the Olympics to China, Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing Olympics Games Big Committee, said that foreign media would have "complete freedom to report when they come to China" for the Olympics. The IOC was apparently encouraged by this, and Beijing was awarded the Games not long after.

Later statements in 2006, and temporary regulations to lift restrictions on foreign journalists from January 1, 2007 to October 17, 2008, appeared to be further indications of the CCP's willingness to allow press freedom—albeit limited to foreign journalists. However, the stories told by journalists in China right now paint a less optimistic picture.

A spokesperson from international journalist rights group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) told The Epoch Times: "The occasional good news, such as the unblocking of access to certain foreign Web sites and the reopening of Tibet, have been eclipsed by a series of outrageous arrests and increased surveillance of human rights activists."

"The Olympic infrastructure is in place, but police controls have been stepped up, the Internet is still censored, international radio stations are jammed, and Beijing's air is still polluted."

"All these topics are banned in the Chinese press," said the RWB spokesperson. "And the luxury of the Olympic Press Center that was inaugurated today in Beijing will not help foreign journalists to forget how precarious their rights are when they try to probe sensitive issues."

Chinese journalists have been placed under even stricter constraints prior to the Olympics. They are prohibited from reporting on anything that could generate unfavorable publicity before the games.

According to a June report in the Hong Kong Financial Times, Hu Jintao told the Chinese media to "maintain strict propaganda discipline."

Empty promises on media freedom

The key promises made in 2006 were to remove the need for journalists to obtain permission to travel outside Beijing and Shanghai, and to interview Chinese citizens. Before, the onerous process of gaining permits meant journalists worked in a "legal gray zone," the report says. Local authorities could then detain and interrogate them for breaking the rules. Some report being forced to write a "self-criticism" for their "illegal" activities as a condition of release.

Now, with restrictions ostensibly lifted, less formal methods appear to have been adopted for ensuring control. Reports on the Web site of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC), for example, paint a damning picture: thugs attacking journalists in broad daylight, anonymous death threats through email, SMS, or telephone, systematic surveillance, and widespread intimidation and violence against sources.

For example, the report states that in January 2008 seven men prevented a German TV team from approaching the home of Yuan Weijing, wife of imprisoned blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Two held rocks in their hands, and the group knocked the cameraman to the ground in a scuffle. The German correspondent says: "these guys were like fighting robots. It was a dangerous situation."

In Hebei province, November 2007, a Swiss team was harassed and detained after investigating local complaints of land theft and the ensuing dispute that led to six villager deaths in 2005. Six cars containing 10 to 12 men drove up to them, claiming to be local villagers. Two of the cars did not have license plates, and Barbara Luthi, the correspondent, believed them to be plainclothes police. She said they were "quite brutal." They twisted her arm, knocked her to the ground, and destroyed their footage. She said, "I have been interrogated by police before, but this was on a whole different scale."

Plainclothes police are also said to incite overzealous Chinese nationalism to block journalists from reporting. "This is happening more and more with [plainclothes thugs] shouting that we are 'harming China' [or] 'doing a bad story about China and must be stopped' [in order to] get other villagers involved," one Beijing-based television correspondent was reported saying.

Innovative methods of control

On other occasions, uniformed police arrest journalists on bogus legal claims, such as requiring official documents verifying residential status, which is not actually required by law. When a journalist pointed out that she had done nothing illegal, a policeman responded with "I'm the law."

None of the attacks are traceable to official sources. Often the incidents end when the local foreign affairs bureau is contacted, where the officials may even apologize, and have the journalist released.

Journalists however, have still been pulled away from the news and are unable to report effectively, according to a foreign journalist cited in the report.

The incidents are rarely investigated, and no indication has been given that there has been an attempt to raise awareness of the relaxed restrictions, or create an atmosphere conducive to media freedom. Journalists may also face "evasiveness, denial, and recrimination" from officials, who blame the journalists for their "reporting style" or attempt to "fabricate news," the report says.

The report also covers the media lockdown and intimidation in Tibet, as well as the CCP's intensive control of local Chinese media, who receive a real-time list of forbidden topics, and act as the regime's mouthpiece.

Above all, journalists' sources—Chinese citizens who are willing to speak out against the regime—receive the harshest treatment. Police sometimes focus on obtaining the names, mobile phone numbers, and locations of these sources when interrogating foreign journalists.

The intensified pressure on sources is thought to be an intentional tactic by CCP officials and security forces, "to maintain a veneer of freedom for foreign journalists while seriously undermining their capacity to report effectively."

Without the protection of a foreign media corporation, these individuals, once identified, may be beaten to the point of hospitalization, or worse. In 2006 for example, Cao Dong, a Falun Gong practitioner, met with Edward McMillan-Scott, vice president of the European Parliament. According to Cao's wife, two hours after the meeting he was kidnapped and detained. She said that their house was ransacked, and that Cao was handcuffed to a chair for a month and tortured. His whereabouts are still unknown.