Posts tagged: Radio Free Asia

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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