Foreign journalists covering the aftermath of flooding in central China’s Henan Province have been harassed by angry groups who have been encouraged by Chinese communist authorities.
Foreign journalists working for international outlets, such as Los Angeles Times, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Agence France-Presse (AFP), have been harassed while covering the flooding’s aftermath.
Last week, 12 million people in the city experienced heavy rainfall for three days—the equivalent of a year’s average rainfall. A third of the rain fell on the afternoon of July 20.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been censoring information about the flood and restricting foreigners acting for non-state media in their disaster reporting. The CCP has warned Chinese netizens and locals not to spread “rumors” about the flood.
In one instance of intimidation against foreign reporters, Mathias Boelinger, who works for German media outlets such as Deutsche Welle, and Los Angeles Times journalist Alice Su were both confronted while conducting interviews in Zhengzhou on July 24.
They were filmed, questioned, and blamed for writing stories that had “slandered” the Chinese regime, as seen in video footage circulated on both Chinese and international social media.
— Mathias Boelinger (@mare_porter) July 25, 2021
Two women, identifying themselves as local media employees, approached them and one started filming them. Crowds quickly gathered, Boelinger wrote on Twitter.
“They kept pushing me yelling that I was a bad guy and that I should stop smearing China. One guy tried to snatch my phone.”
He said that many of those menacing him thought that he was Robin Brant, who is the BBC’s China correspondent. Once he managed to explain that he wasn’t Brant, many of those in the crowd calmed down.
“What I did not know at the time was that a manhunt was on after [Robin Brant] … There is a vicious campaign against [BBC News] in nationalistic circles and state media,” Boelinger wrote on Twitter.
Su said she tried to deescalate the situation by translating the crowds’ message, while the people angrily shouted at them to “get out of China.”
I then started filming as well. Then she called other people over. I think it was about ten men, mostly middle aged. They showed me a picture of @robindbrant and kept asking is that you? Then things quickly escalated. 6/11 pic.twitter.com/GInNKPuCK5
— Mathias Boelinger (@mare_porter) July 25, 2021
The video footage of the July 24 incidents was widely circulated on Chinese social media site Weibo, but most of the comments regarding it were abusive and threatening. Some even posted the journalists’ personal information.
Global Times, the CCP’s mouthpiece, published an article on July 25 stating that such incidents would further help western media “smear” the regime. It called on the public to find smarter ways to make Western journalists “pay the price.”
On Weibo, the Communist Youth League of Henan Province had called for people to stalk Brant and to report his whereabouts on July 24.
The BBC reporter was accused of being a “rumor-mongering foreigner” and of “seriously distorting the facts” in his reports on the flooding.
Days earlier, Brant had published a video report about a flooded subway in Zhengzhou on the Chinese language BBC. Video footage shared online shows train passengers trapped neck-deep in water, causing some to drown or suffocate.
At least 14 people died in the submerged subway.
“How was it that a station on this line, on an underground metro system that’s less than 10 years old, came to be overwhelmed by rainwater and passengers left to die on the platform?” he asked.
His video report was a source of outrage among some in China.
Although Brant had noted that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called for improving the transport network’s early warning systems, his coverage of passengers being submerged in water went against the CCP’s propaganda line.
The hostility that Brant, Boelinger, and Su experienced has become commonplace for foreign reporters inside China.
According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), other correspondents have reported similar experiences in Zhengzhou during their coverage of the flooding.
Journalists of the Associated Press were stopped and reported to the police for filming. French outlet AFP was forced to delete footage after being surrounded by several dozen men while reporting on a submerged highway tunnel.
A crew from Al Jazeera were followed and filmed while reporting outside the waterlogged metro station.
The BBC issued a statement on July 27 calling for the Chinese regime to immediately stop encouraging attacks on foreign journalists.
The BBC calls for immediate action by the Chinese government to stop the attacks on journalists following reporting on the floods in Henan Province. pic.twitter.com/gQsRM0svKR
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) July 27, 2021
The FCCC has also condemned the role played by the communist state in stifling freedom of the press in the communist-controlled nation.
“Rhetoric from organizations affiliated with China’s ruling Communist Party directly endangers the physical safety of foreign journalists in China and hinders free reporting,” the FCCC wrote on Twitter on July 27.