Posts tagged: Peter Ford

Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship

By , December 9, 2013

Part 3 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China.  For Part 1, click here; Part 2, click here

Journalist Paul Mooney in San Francisco

Journalist Paul Mooney in San Francisco

When China denied veteran journalist Paul Mooney’s visa request this past November, neither the State Department, Administration officials nor anyone on Capitol Hill said anything publicly about a U.S. citizen appearing to be punished for his speech.

Similarly, when China failed to renew U.S. citizen and Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa, forcing her to leave China in May 2012, a State Department deputy spokesperson merely expressed the Department’s “disappointment” very briefly during a regular Q&A session with the press:  “I would just say that we’re disappointed in the Chinese Government – in how the Chinese Government decided not to renew her accreditation.  To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China.”  Such has been the extent of the Administration’s public statements, until now.

It is certainly a positive development that Vice President Joe Biden, on his trip to Beijing last week, publicly rebuked the Chinese government for its treatment of U.S. journalists, tying Beijing’s actions to impacting “universal human rights.”  While the comments at last Thursday’s closed-door meeting with U.S. journalists were off-the-record, the fact that the meeting occurred was very much on-the-record, demonstrating that the Administration has finally realized the seriousness of the situation and the need to try a new tactic.

But one wonders if the Administration’s changed strategy – publicly addressing the issue – is too little too late.  According to reports, the Chinese

Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden

government is still toying with the visas of approximately 24 New York Times and Bloomberg correspondents; without renewal by December 31, the New York Times and Bloomberg’s China bureaus could potentially shut down, much in the way Al Jazeera English‘s Beijing office had to close, over a year and a half ago, when Melissa Chan’s visa was not renewed before its expiration.

Why the U.S. Government Must Act – Protecting an American Brand

A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States; it was crucial to the success of the American Revolution, is encapsulated within the First Amendment and rarely if ever abridged.

For Americans, standing up for freedom of the press is important  in and of itself, but becomes even more critical when journalists from one’s own nation are being restricted.  Congress or the Administration insisting that China allow access to foreign journalists is different from demanding access for other industries; it is not some mere effort to protect the domestic media establishment. Rather, speech is a core value of the American people, and condemning censorship is, as Hillary Clinton put it, part of our “national brand.”

This national brand goes beyond the U.S.’ own borders.  As recounted by Chinese journalist Liu Jianfeng in a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is often the foreign press’ coverage of domestic events that provides the green light necessary for the Chinese media to cover more sensitive issues.  Liu specifically points to the 2011 Wukan protests, where over a thousand villagers demonstrated for months because of the local government’s land seizures, to make his point.  It was only because the foreign press started covering the event that the Chinese media was permitted to do so.  Similarly, Melissa Chan filmed her report on China’s black jails in April 2009; in November 2009, a Chinese magazine ran a similar expose.  In February 2013, signaling official opprobrium, a Beijing court sentenced 10 men to prison for illegally operating a black jail.  Thus, the U.S.’ promotion of freedom of its press in China benefits the Chinese people, bringing some accountability and transparency to their one-Party state.

Not Just a Moral Principle But Also Good for Business

good_businessChina’s attempted censorship of the foreign press – through its abuse of the visa process – certainly infringes upon free speech.  But there is a more mercantile reason to guarantee that U.S. media companies are not censored: information and disclosure are key to efficient markets.  Accurate information protects investors and businesses as it creates transparency in the market, placing all sides of a transaction on equal footing.  This is especially true where an economy, like China’s, is particularly opaque.

One of the apparent red lines for foreign reporters is the finances of China’s leadership: the New York Times‘ David Barboza wrote an October 2012 series concerning former Premier Wen Jiabao’s protection of his family’s investment in Ping An Insurance and Bloomberg published its June 2012 “Revolution to Riches,” an expose on the children of China’s revolutionaries and the power and wealth they have been able to accumulate.  Both have also become Beijing’s main targets.

What Beijing currently seeks to censor – articles about the overlap of its economy, major businesses and the power elite – are the exact articles

Cheers! Former Premier Wen Jiabao

Cheers! Former Premier Wen Jiabao

necessary to inform potential market investors.  Unfortunately as the New York Times and Bloomberg reporters appear on the cusp of a compelled departure, there are few news agencies that can – or will even want to – fill their role of hard-hitting financial reporting on China, a time-intensive endeavor.

But even articles about legal development, political unrest, growing wealth inequalities, environmental degradation and crackdowns on dissent, issues that Mooney and Chan fervently covered, are also important.  Businesses who invest in China hire companies – like the Eurasia Group – to inform them about these developments.  It is vital to their investments to know if the village, town or county where their company or factory is located is a political powder keg.

But by continuing to harass, intimidate and effectively expel journalists who cross certain red lines, Beijing is sending a message to the remaining reporters.  “The decision to deny Paul Mooney a visa has brought home to our membership the lengths the Chinese authorities will go to persuade foreign reporters not to report on things they don’t like” Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) told China Law & Policy in a phone interview.  Foreign reporters who are left in China may not want to continue to take on these hard-hitting stories that could effectively terminate their livelihoods.  Their editors may not let them.  As a result, banks, investors and even the U.S. government will lose one of its most important resources for accurate and frank reporting on a country vital to America’s position in the world.

‘It’s Only Words’…Or is it Visa Retaliation?

Right now, approximately 24 foreign correspondents for the New York Times and Bloomberg are waiting for their visa to be renewed.  According to reports, many have not received their press cards, the annual cards issued every November by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) and necessary to apply for a visa renewal with the Public Security Bureau’s (PSB) Exit- Entry Administration.  Under China’s new Exit-Entry Administration Law, resident foreigners, such as foreign journalists, are required to apply for a visa renewal at least 30 days prior to the current visa’s expiration (see Article 32).  In China, all journalists’ visas have a December expiration which could be any day in the month, with the 31st as the last.  Since it is already December 8, those journalists who have not received their press cards, are currently in violation of Chinese law.  However, as Gary Chodorow, a Beijing-based immigration lawyer, points out, the law is silent as to any repercussions to applying late.  But that is of little comfort to those reporters unsure if they will have to leave China on or before New Year’s Eve.

visa denied“Things are never going to get better if we don’t do something reciprocal” Mooney complained to China Law & Policy last week in a phone interview and prior to Biden’s Beijing visit.  “Some sort of stronger tactic would be helpful”  Mooney said.

But is Biden’s public censure last week and meetings with journalists sufficient to stop a Chinese government that appears intent on essentially shutting down two major U.S. media outlets in China?  Even in light of Biden’s actions, the Chinese government appears to have dug in its heels with a MOFA spokesperson stating on Thursday that “[a]s for foreign correspondents’ living and working environments in China, I think as long as you hold an objective and impartial attitude, you will arrive at the right conclusion.”  “Objective” was the same key word used in Mooney’s visa interview before his visa application was denied.

This type of stubborn behavior is precisely why some have begun to consider reciprocal visa treatment as a way to deal with China’s attempted censorship of the foreign press.

The U.S.’ Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) provides journalist visas “upon the basis of reciprocity” (see INA Sec. 101(a)(15)(I)).  Reciprocity is a foundational principle of the international order, guaranteeing that the treatment of one country to another will be returned in kind.  Reciprocity – and the fear of negative reciprocity – is what induces international actors to act reasonably.

While visa reciprocity is usually in regards to fees and other procedural aspects, reciprocal treatment can be used to deny entry to a foreign national.  The INA also permits the State Department and its consular agents to deny a visa where entry of the individual would have “serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States….”  What is a “serious adverse foreign policy consequence” is left in the discretion of the State Department and its employees.  In fact, the decision to deny a visa falls under the “Doctrine of Consular Non-reviewability” and is rarely subject to judicial review (exception: Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972)).

With the U.S. issuing 989 journalist visas to Chinese mainland reporters in 2012, many of which are issued to Chinese state-run media outlets,

Chinese state-run Xinhua News in the heart of NYC

Chinese state-run Xinhua News in the heart of NYC

some have looked to deny one or two key visas as a form of reciprocity.  At the very least, some have suggested slowing down the visa approval process much in the same way the Chinese government does to U.S. journalists in China.

While legal, it raises the question of is this who we want to be?  The reason why the U.S. government should more publicly reprimand Beijing for its treatment of foreign journalists is because of the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of the press.  For the U.S. to refuse a visa to a Chinese journalist would undermine that commitment.  While many of the Chinese reporters do work for the state-controlled media, they are still journalists and should be protected by freedom of the press.  These also are not the individuals responsible for the Chinese government’s actions.

The U.S. government, in calling on China to stop censoring its reporters through the visa process, has the moral high ground.  Because of the principle of freedom of the press, the U.S. government is seeking to guarantee that its media outlets – outlets that often run critical stories on these same politicians – are able to report freely from China.  Even if not reported in the Chinese press, this type behavior still resonates with the Chinese journalists both in the U.S. and in China.

Robert Mugabe, No Visa for You!

Robert Mugabe, No Visa for You!

 

If the U.S. government were to resort to visa reciprocity, it should not look to restrict or delay Chinese journalist visas.  Instead, visa denials or delays of employees of MOFA or the PSB, the entities that are responsible for U.S. journalists current mistreatment in China, is likely more appropriate.  Visa denial of responsible government officials would not be a first.  The U.S. currently has a visa ban on approximately 128 Zimbabwe government officials and their families.  These high officials have been deemed to be partially responsible – along with President Robert Mugabe – in undermining Zimbabwe’s nascent democratic practices.  As a result, the U.S. has targeted them with visa denials

 

‘But Words Are All Have’…Other Options Open to the U.S.

There are still less extreme courses of action that the U.S. government can take.  Biden’s public statement in Beijing and meeting with U.S. journalists were a start.  Public admonishment of China’s behavior must continue and be regular.  In speaking with China Law & Policy, Ford, president of the FCCC, an organization which does not support using visa retaliation, stated that “the FCCC does not think it would be inappropriate for foreign diplomats to take every opportunity to remind their Chinese counterparts that Chinese journalists face none of the obstacles that foreign reporters in China are faced with. ”

In the U.S., this reminder must come from both Congress and the Administration.  Although Mooney has reached out to members of Congress, including his representative, Nancy Pelosi, Capitol Hill and the White House have remained largely silent other than Biden’s recent remarks in Beijing.  China Law & Policy‘s calls and emails to Representative Pelosi’s office went unanswered.

Fortunately, to keep this issue front and center, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) will host a roundtable discussion

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, shaking hands with former Premier Wen Jiabao

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, shaking hands with former Premier Wen Jiabao

this Wednesday featuring Mooney, Bob Dietz, Asia Program Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia with Freedom House.  How well attended that roundtable is will signal to Beijing just how far it can go in its abuse of the journalist visa process.  Biden’s gestures in Beijing were an important start but will senior Administration or State Department officials attend the roundtable?  Will it be more than just Congressional interns in attendance?  China knows how to read Capitol Hill tea leaves as well.

There is a chance that the New York Times and Bloomberg reporters will have their visas renewed and the China bureaus will not be shut down.  But while the immediate crisis might be avoided, as this series has demonstrated, Beijing will likely continue to find ways to censor foreign reporters through the visa renewal process or through direct pressure on the editors of key newspapers.  The fact that this has risen to crisis level means that the U.S. government did not act boldly soon enough to protect one of its core values, freedom of the press.

This is the third and final post in this series.  To re-read Part 1, click here; Part 2, click here.

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing

By , December 3, 2013

Part 1 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China

china media pressIn less than two years, China has effectively banned four journalists – either American citizens or those working for American media companies – from entering and reporting on the country.  Their crime?  None that the Chinese government cares to explain.  But most outside of China believe that it was these reporters’ – or their colleagues’ – critical coverage of China that proved to be their sin.

As China rises, its government has come to realize that it has a bit of a problem: its image.  While the Chinese government can effectively censor its domestic media from reporting on human rights violations, political unrest, corruption, or anything it deems sensitive, its control of the foreign media has long proven less successful.  Until more recently.  For the past few years, Beijing has increasingly used the journalist visa process to try to influence foreign reportage and to signal to foreign media outlets that they better tone down critical coverage.  Unfortunately, it appears that some U.S. news organizations are getting the message and towing the line.

To date, the U.S. government has remained silent about China’s assault on foreign journalists, even as U.S. citizens and news outlets are increasingly targeted.   Last month, when China denied Reuters‘ visa request for veteran China journalist Paul Mooney, the Administration again failed to issue any public statement.

The U.S. government’s silence is not without its costs.  As the world’s second largest economy and an increasingly bellicose nation, accurate reporting on the country is imperative to the United States.  If Beijing is permitted to continue to trifle with foreign journalists’ visas, frank reporting on China will become a relic of the past.  But it is the U.S. government that can prevent this outcome if it chooses to act and not wait for the situation to get worse.  Which it will if the past year is any guide.

Paul Mooney’s Experience Epitomizes Foreign Journalists’ Visa Anguish

Soft-spoken  and unassuming, Paul Mooney is not what you would expect from a former soldier who saw some of the worst fighting of the

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Vietnam War.  But those familiar with his hard-hitting news reports on China, have little difficulty understanding why he’s been called the bane of Beijing.

Mooney, a freelance journalist in China for the past 18 years, moved back to the United States when his contract with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post expired.  With his in-depth knowledge of China, understanding of its people and politics, and fluency in Mandarin, Reuters quickly picked up Mooney as one of their China correspondents.  Mooney is the type of reporter you want on the ground in China if you want accurate and interesting reporting.  Reuters submitted Mooney’s journalist visa application in March 2013.

In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Mooney said he figured the Chinese government would make him jump through some hoops to get the visa since some of his articles in the past few years covered more sensitive topics.  In fact, during his last two visa renewal cycles in Beijing – in 2010 and 2011 – the Public Security Bureau (“PSB” – the organization that renews the actual visa) had him meet with officers in an interrogation room in the back of the visa application hall.  In 2010 – in what Mooney interpreted as a power play – the PSB demanded that his wife attend the visa renewal interview with him.

If the 2010 and 2011 renewal processes were difficult, applying for a new journalist visa from abroad just added to Mooney’s struggle.  In April 2013, Mooney was summoned to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for an interview.  But again what should have been a routine affair proved to be a 90 minute interrogation.  Familiar with his articles and prior visa interviews, the consular officer grilled Mooney on some of his more critical articles such as the suppression of Chinese rights activists and the Chinese government’s treatment of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.  According to Mooney, the official ended the interview telling him that if China let him back in he hoped that his reporting would prove more “objective.”  “It is outrageous and unacceptable that they can call you in and tell you how to report” Mooney told China Law & Policy.  “Imagine a U.S. official calling in a German reporter and telling him what to write about?”

According to Mooney, another Reuters China correspondent who applied for a new visa around the same time Mooney did and whose focus was solely economic, received her journalist visa approval in May.  But for Mooney, the wait continued for another seven months. Then on November 8, 2013, Reuters informed Mooney that China had denied his visa application.  According to Mooney, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) did not explain its decision providing only a cryptic written statement to other journalists covering his visa denial that its determination was made in accordance with Chinese law and regulations.  “If they want to reject you, they should give a reason” Mooney said.  “This is not the behavior of a country that wants to be a superpower or a respected power.  It’s childish.”

Mooney believes the Chinese government’s real reason to deny him a visa was to censor his China reporting and potentially chill other foreign correspondents’ China coverage.  Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington went unanswered.

Harassment of Resident Foreign Journalists in the Visa Renewal Process

visa0309What Mooney labels “childish” behavior – the use of the visa process to ostensibly chill the foreign press – appears to have become a strategy that the Chinese government is more quick to employ.  Which it can do on an annual basis.  For resident journalists in China, the journalist visa (“J-1 visa”) is only good for a year, expiring every December.  Beginning in November, every resident foreign journalist begins the renewal process, first re-applying with MOFA for a press card and then, once obtaining the press card, renewing her J-1 visa with the PSB.  But what should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden affair.

In the past three years, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) has documented an increasing number of incidents where the Chinese government threatens not to renew a visa or unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process.

In its November 2012 survey,[1] the FCCC found that since the end of 2011, at least 29 resident foreign correspondents were threatened with a visa non-renewal.  The respondents’ quotes (119 FCCC members responded to the survey) show that some of these threats were linked to specific reporting or journalists’ “attitude.”

Currently, all of China’s resident foreign correspondents are undergoing the visa renewal process.  In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, said that it was just too early to draw any conclusions from the 2013 process as it is ongoing but he did note that “reporters for media which have displeased the authorities appear to be facing unexpected delays.”

Who displeases the authorities is anyone’s guess although some topics are touchier than others on the Chinese government’s revolving list of sensitive subjects.  But as Ford told China Law & Policy, “it would seem that the red line the government has drawn in the last 18 months concerns finances of senior government officials.”  In line with that assessment is the fact that for the two foreign media outlets that covered that issue – Bloomberg and the New York Times – both have had their websites blocked in China since publishing their reports.  In January 2013, the New York Times reported that Chinese hackers – hackers possibly related to the Chinese military – had attacked its website for many months. Those attacks began on the eve of the Times‘ publication of the first of David Barboza’s Pultizer Prize-winning series on Premier Wen Jiabao’s role in preventing the legally-mandated break-up of one of his family’s lucrative holdings – Ping An Insurance.

Additionally, according to Ford, China’s changed visa regulations, which applies to all foreigners residing in China, makes renewal of the J-1 visa chine mediaprocedurally more difficult.  With the new regulations that went into effect in July 2013, the PSB (which is the entity that issues the visa; MOFA issues the press card which is necessary to obtain to apply for the visa) is now permitted to take 15 business days – basically three weeks – to issue the renewal. During that time period, the PSB holds on to the reporter’s passport, making international travel impossible.  Prior to those changes, the PSB only had 5 business days for the renewal process.  How these procedural changes will affect the J-1 visa renewal process is yet to be seen, but at the very least, it makes an already trying process more difficult.

Foreign Media Outlets Can’t Get Their Reporters In

For foreign journalists living in China, the visa renewal process is certainly distressing.  But for those journalists trying to get into China, the visa process can become a wall.  Included in the FCCC’s November 2012 report, 20 foreign reporters stated that they had to wait four months or more for their J-1 visas to be processed.  According to Ford, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a J-1 excessive.  For a temporary correspondent who receives a J-2 Visa, the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait.

Presently, two individuals waiting an excessive period of time for a journalist visa are New York Times’ reporters Philip Pan and Chris Buckley.  Pan, who is ostensibly the New York Times‘ Beijing Bureau chief, has been in a Chinese government-imposed visa-limbo since March 2012.  His colleague Buckley, reporting on China from Hong Kong, has been waiting for his J-1 visa since at least December 2012.

nytBut the New York Times is not alone.  Andrew Higgins, the Washington Post‘s China correspondent waited in Hong Kong for over three years for his J-1 visa.  His crime?  Likely his 1991 expulsion from China for possession of confidential documents concerning the alleged suppression of a Mongolian nationalist movement.  Unable to obtain his J-1 visa, in September 2012, Higgins announced his resignation from the Washington Post.  He now reports for the New York Times from Brussels.

If Higgins’ experience and Mooney’s outright visa denial are any guide, the future does not look bright for Pan and Buckley.  Especially in light of the fact that the New York Times has more recently published another likely sensitive series –  J.P. Morgan Chase’s hiring of the Chinese leadership’s children, including the daughter of former Premier Wen Jiabao.  Luckily the New York Times hasn’t gotten the hint that its coverage isn’t particularly popular with the Chinese regime.

For Part 2, which examines various U.S. media outlet’s possible self-censorship, please click here.


[1] The FCCC’s “2012 FCCC Visa Survey Report” is on file with China Law & Policy.  To obtain a copy, please email fcccadmin@gmail.com.

But if not the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, Then What?

By , July 18, 2012

Part 3 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(Click here for Part 1; click here for Part 2)

There is a chance that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could result in China granting visas to U.S. government journalist, but that possibility is slim.  The effects of passage of the Act mentioned in Part 1 – the eradication of the Chinese press in the U.S., an all out visa war, and greater suppression of freedom of the press – are much more likely and not positive.  But the U.S. does not have to sit back and just watch the Chinese government harass and censor their journalists.  Below are some less extreme alternatives that the U.S. government can conduct to express its displeasure with the Chinese government and perhaps change the current situation.

Alternative #1: Raise the Issue When it Happens

The U.S government’s tepid response to Melissa Chan’s unlawful expulsion was a missed opportunity to underscore the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of the press to the Chinese government.  The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary if the U.S. government publicly stresses that this is an important issue.  While some may argue that private diplomacy and comments work better with China, the current Administration has publicly censure China when its behavior bucks international human right standards.  As recently as last Tuesday, while on a trip to Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly criticized China for its lack of freedom for its own people.

Similarly, if freedom of the press means something, after Melissa Chan’s expulsion, the U.S. State Department should have issued an official statement from a high ranking official reprimanding China for unlawfully using the visa process to censor foreign journalist coverage.  Perhaps such a statement would have given Beijing pause and might cause it to change from its current course of conduct.  But a mere statement of “disappoint” permits Beijing to continue harassing foreign journalists and interfering with their coverage by threatening to deny visa renewals.  Rhetoric can make a difference or at the very least serve as a signaling device to Beijing that this is an important issue that the U.S. government is not going to take lightly.

Alternative #2: List the Harassment of U.S. Journalists on its Website

The Foreign Correspondent Club of China (“FCCC”) previously posted their members’ incidents reports and the yearly surveys on their website.  But since February 2011, the FCCC is no longer posting the reports or the surveys because of increasing pressure from the Chinese government.  As Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy, the FCCC removed mention of the incident reports because “the [Chinese] Foreign Ministry threatened the FCCC president and other officers with unspecified ‘serious consequences’ if the club continued to make public statements that the government regarded as political. To ensure the club’s continued existence we have since limited our public statements to particularly egregious violations of our journalistic rights and freedoms, such as physical injuries sustained by foreign reporters at police hands and Melissa Chan’s expulsion.”

Ambassador to China Gary Locke - can he help protect US journalists?

The public availability of the incident reports provided an important look into the treatment of foreign journalists in China, including their visa issues.  But with the Chinese government’s censorship of the FCCC, that important information is no longer available and it becomes difficult to know the current situation in Beijing.

But the U.S. Embassy in Beijing can serve this function by posting U.S. journalists’ incident reports.  At the very least, they can list the issues that U.S. journalists are having with the visa process serving two purposes: informing its citizens about the j-visa process and highlighting to the Chinese government that this is a serious matter that the Embassy plans to monitor.  The U.S. Embassy in Beijing does something similar for air pollution; the Embassy has a page dedicated to listing air quality reports every hour.  This webpage has  irked the Chinese government since the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection hosts a similar webpage but usually with more positive air quality numbers, making apparent that someone is not telling the truth.  There is no reason why the same can’t be done with U.S. journalists in China.

Alternative #3: Deny a Visa

But another reason why the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary – and another tool that can be used to protect our journalists in Beijing – is that the U.S. can deny visas under current law.  The Immigration and Nationality Act provides the executive branch with a list of circumstances, which at times are very vague, where the government can deny a visa.  Section 212(a)(3)(C) allows the State Department to deny a visa if there are adverse foreign policy concerns: “An alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States is inadmissible.”  Within the courts, the executive branch is given almost exclusive deference in immigration and visa decisions.  See Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972).

If rhetoric does not work with the Chinese government, the U.S. government can threaten to deny a visa to a single Chinese reporter.  This might do the trick without damaging freedom of the press too much.  In “The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy,” Prof. Kevin D. Stringer analyzed the use of visas as a diplomatic tool.  Although Stringer is not keen on the denial of a visa as a sanctioning tool, he does note that on occasion it has produced positive results.  After India unexpectedly conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the U.S. denied a visa to Dr. R. Chidambaram, the Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, who had come to the U.S. multiple times before.

The denial was symbolic but had a larger psychological impact on Indians on work visas or those who wanted to send their children to a U.S. college.; would their visas be denied as well?  How far would the U.S. go?

Similarly, the U.S. government could threaten to deny – or just not process – a visa to a key Chinese reporter.  In February 2012, to much fanfare in China, the Chinese government launched CCTV America, based in Washington, D.C.  A threat to deny a visa to one of their top reporters or directors could put the Chinese on notice that the U.S. is not going to stand for the harassment of U.S. reporters abroad.  Similar to the 1998 India situation, given the large number of political elites’ children who attend college in America, a single visa denial could have a similar psychological impact on influential elites in China.

The U.S. does not have to pass the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, but it does need to communicate its displeasure with the way foreign correspondents are treated in China.  There are other avenues to do that but one thing is clear, the U.S. government must start raising this issue otherwise things will only continue to deteriorate as it has for the past three years.

To see Part 1, click here; to see Part 2, click here

The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and Censorship of Foreign Journalists in China

By , July 16, 2012

Part 2 in a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(For Part 1, click here)

Putting aside the shrill rhetoric surrounding the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and the fact that it only deals with the harassment of a small segment of U.S. journalists in China (the VOA and RFA reporters), the Act does draw attention to an increasingly problematic issue: the Chinese governments harassment of foreign journalists through the visa process.  It also raises the question: what should the U.S. government be doing about this harassment?

The Visa Renewal Process for Foreign Journalists – a Censoring Tool?

In the past two years, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) has documented an increasing number of incidents where the Chinese government threatens not to renew a visa or  unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process.  In China, a journalist visa (“j-visa) is only for a year and must be renewed every December.  What should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden occasion.  In 2011, the FCCC started focusing on the difficulties some of its members experienced in renewing their visas.  A 2011 FCCC  survey reported that 27 foreign journalists waited four months for a visa renewal.  According to Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a visa for a permanent correspondent excessive (for a temporary correspondent the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait).  Thirteen journalists waited six months for a visa; and for three, their visa applications have been pending since 2009.

For 2012, the numbers have only gotten worse.  In the FCCC’s  2012 survey, released on May 31, close to a third of all respondents (36 out of 111 respondents) reported difficulty with renewing their j-visas or obtaining visas for new colleagues.[1]  Furthermore, the FCCC’s 2012 survey found that 21 of these reporters were told or believed that their visa difficulties were a direct result of their China coverage, demonstrating the Chinese government’s attempt to censor foreign correspondents by threatening their j-visa.  Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy that he doesn’t think that these threats and the continued harassment has had a chilling effect on foreign reporters’ China coverage.

It’s true that great and hard-hitting stories still make their way to our shores and maybe we just haven’t hit that tipping point.  But if China increases its pressure on foreign journalists, at what point will they crack and soften their stories?  A loss of a visa, especially for freelance journalists, could easily mean a loss of one’s livelihood.

A Foreign Correspondent Expelled from China: Becoming More than Just a Visa Problem

This past May, the Chinese government took the bold step of kicking out a foreign journalist: Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen and long-time Al Jazeera English correspondent in Beijing.  The reason for Chan’s expulsion from China?  We don’t know.  The Chinese government has elected not to share that information.  But most speculate that it was a result of the Chinese government’s displeasure with Al Jazeera’s documentary of Chinese forced labor camps, a documentary that Chan played no role in filming and it was produced out of Al Jazeera’s London bureau.  Likely though, Chan’s hard-hitting coverage of official corruption, government land grabs, black jails and other sensitive topics didn’t help her case.  Prior to her expulsion, Chan was already being harassed:  her visa was not renewed for another year, instead she was on three short-term visas, probably to keep her on a “tight leash.”

Al Jazeera English China correspondant, Melissa Chan (photo from Al Jazeera)

Is Chan’s treatment a bell weather for other reporters?  Soon after Chan’s departure, Ford, as then president-elect of the FCCC was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the body which, in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Security, oversees foreign  journalists) and was reassured that Chan’s case was “sui generis.” “I was assured by a Ministry official that Melissa’s case was specific to her and other correspondents had nothing to fear.”  But as Ford went on to muse, the official’s statement only provided so much solace to the remaining correspondents in China; as long as the Chinese government continues to be mum on those specifics and persists in using the visa process as a censorship tool, other foreign correspondents don’t know if they have crossed that line that Chan crossed until they actually cross it.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, one reason to oppose the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is a belief in freedom of the press.  One would think that the U.S. government would have a particular interest in guaranteeing that journalists around the world – especially foreign journalists abroad – are left unharassed and are free to report their stories.  But the U.S.’ reaction to the expulsion of one of its citizens questions this commitment.  In a single press briefing, Department of State deputy spokesperson, Mark C. Toner, expressed the Department’s “disappointment:” “I would just say that we’re disappointed in the Chinese Government – in how the Chinese Government decided not to renew her accreditation.  To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China.”

True Chan was not working for a U.S. media organization and instead was working for Al Jazeera, and her expulsion came soon after the difficult negotiation on Chen Guangcheng, but regardless, one would think that the U.S. government, the stalwart of press freedom, would have been more than just “disappointed.”  Even if the U.S. government did not want to raise the issue of an Al Jazeera reporter, it could have used Chan’s expulsion to highlight the case of Andrew Higgins, one of the Washington Post’s China correspondent who since 2009 has been waiting for a j-visa to enter China.

If freedom of the press is so important, how can we just sit back and watch the Chinese government toy with and try to influence any U.S. reporter, even one working for private news outlets?  What can the U.S. do to try to change this situation in China?

To be concluded in Part 3


[1] The FCCC’s “2012 FCCC Correspondent Member Survey Highlights” is on file with China Law & Policy.  To obtain a copy, please email fcccadmin@gmail.com.

What is Wrong With the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act

Part 1 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the “Chinese Media Reciprocity Act” (H.R. 2899), a bill introduced last fall by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California.   The Act attempts to combat China’s restrictive visa policies for U.S. government-employed journalists.  Instead of issuing journalist visas to most if not all Chinese journalists in the U.S., the Act would require that the number of visas issued to Chinese government journalists be identical to the number of visas that China issues to U.S. government reporters.

In reality, the impact of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is anything but reciprocal.  The U.S. has two government-sponsored news agencies in (or trying to get in) China: Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA); the remaining U.S. journalists in China work for private media outlets.  China on the other hand, with its state-owned media, has 13government-run agencies and over 800 media personnel working in the U.S.  If passed, within 30 days, the State Department would be required to revoke the number of visas issued to Chinese journalists to equal the number of visas issued to American government journalists in China which currently stands at 2.  The Act would all but eliminate a Chinese media presence in the U.S.

Given its extreme and inflexible nature, the Act shouldn’t be passed.  But it does highlight a truly important issue: the harassment, censorship and expulsion of foreign journalists from China and raises the issue of what the U.S government should do about it.

The Act has many problems.  First, it solely focuses on China, giving it the air of a Chinese Exclusion Act.  China is not the only country which denies foreign journalists visas – a quick review of the worst countries for journalists on Reporters Without Borders’ website reveals that Burma, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea similarly deny foreign journalists visas.  But this Act is exclusively about China.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

Second, the rhetoric by the Act’s proponents leads one to believe that they are more motivated by a Cold War mentality than a true concern about U.S. journalists’ access in China.   Rep. Rohrabacher’s testimony in support of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is filled with red herrings concerning Confucius Institutes, billboards in Times Square, and the Chinese purchase of AMC movie theaters (in order to flood the US with Chinese propaganda films).  Testimony by John Lenczowski focused more on Russian spies in the US Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War than the actual treatment of U.S. journalists in China today.

Third, passage of the Act could lead to even worse retaliation by China.  China repeatedly harasses the two VOA reporters in China (see Nick Zahn’s testimony, p. 5-6) and it has consistently denied visas to RFA reporters.  Perhaps the most famous incident was when the Chinese government rescinded the RFA reporters’ visas only days before they were to accompany President Clinton on his 1998 trip to China.

But other major media outlets, like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN, just to name a few, have reporters on the ground in China doing some hard hitting reporting.  Yes these reporters are also often harassed and are often forced to wait months for a visa or are threatened by the Chinese security apparatus that visa renewal will be denied (one of the Washington Post’s China reporters – Andrew Higgins – has been waiting for a visa since 2009, forced to report from Hong Kong).   But in general, most reporters are able to renew their visas and solid reporting from China is able to make it to our shores.  But some, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, warn that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could lead to an all out visa war, resulting in China denying a greater number of visas and exacerbating an already tense situation for foreign journalists there.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is this who we want to be?  A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States; it was crucial to the success of the American Revolution, is encapsulated within the First Amendment, and is rarely if ever abridged.  As Americans, we understand that the press is a building block to creating a government truly accountable to its people; unfettered press access is an important goal in and of itself.

In recent years, China has seen some developments in a more professionalized and freer press.  Yes, the Chinese press still has to take its most of its cues from the Chinese government, but there has been some development in more real reporting (see Susan Shirk’s Changing Media, Changing China).  But by essentially eradicating the Chinese press from U.S. shores, the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act undermines our goals of this burgeoning freedom of the press in China.  Even the reporters harassed by the Chinese government do not agree with such actions.  Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”), told China Law & Policy that they “do not support efforts to restrict press freedom in one country in an effort to improve press freedom in another.  We remain committed to freedom of the press.”

But all the attention surrounding the Act raises the issue of Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists.  Is there anything the U.S. can do to change what appears to be the Chinese government’s increased harassment of foreign journalists?

Continued in Part 2

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