Posts tagged: Washington Post

The Widening Gyre: The Changed Power Dynamics of Journalists Visas

By , December 23, 2013
Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

After publishing an article concerning the Washington Post‘s 2010 decision to pull author Peter Manseau’s 8,000 word magazine piece on Washington D.C.’s  Falun Gong  community, the Post‘s former executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, returned China Law & Policy‘s call. Brauchli, executive editor in 2010, denied insinuations of self-censorship: “The Washington Post did not nor would it ever have killed a piece of journalism because of concerns about getting visas for its reporters.  The Post made its [publication] decision, and as far as I know always makes its decisions, based on journalistic merit” Brauchli said.

But Brauchli, with decades of experience reporting from China, was far from ignorant of the China visa issues.  As of last Thursday, many but not all of the New York Times and Bloomberg China correspondents received press cards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, enabling them to apply for their renewed visas with the Public Security Bureau.  But that does not mean the crisis is over.  As Brauchli noted to China Law & Policy, Beijing’s current approach to journalists’ visas appears to be a much more organized effort compared to the past.  Quite a number of individuals share Brauchli’s feelings, with many believing thatafter 2008, the Chinese government has been more inclined to use the journalist visa renewal or visa application process to intimidate and possibly censor foreign journalists.

But are these feelings accurate?  Even if the Times and Bloomberg journalists’ visas are renewed with full year ones – not the month to sixth month temporary journalist visas given to Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan before they were effectively barred from China – Beijing will probably continue its approach. It came fairly close to shutting down the China offices of two major news organizations.  As a result, it is imperative that the changed dynamics – both in U.S. newsrooms and in China – are understood.

Things Fall Apart: The John Pomfret, Ian Johnson & Andrew Higgins Visa Experiences

John Pomfret is perhaps the most famous American journalist to be expelled from China.  As a 30-year-old Beijing correspondent for the

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

Associated Press, Pomfret found himself in the middle of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, protests that would bring as many as a hundred thousand people to the Square, that would shake the Chinese Communist Party to its core and that would culminate in the massacre of hundreds on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4.

Ten days after the crackdown, Pomfret was  expelled from China.  The Chinese government accused him – along with Voice of America correspondent Al Pessin who also was expelled –  of stealing state secrets and violating martial law.

Pomfret’s journalist career would take him to other places and other crises, but eventually it would come back in China.  As Pomfret recounts in his book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, in 1997, the Washington Post, his employer at the time, sought to elevate him to Beijing Bureau chief.  But the Chinese government had not forgotten his coverage of Tiananmen eight years earlier; the Chinese Embassy told the Washington Post: “please try another name.”

Pomfret would be approved for a journalist visa but not without great effort on the part of the Washington Post.  Fortunately for Pomfret, Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post at the time and a powerful force in her own right, got involved.  She invited the Chinese ambassador to tea and made sure that her friend Henry Kissinger mentioned Pomfret’s case to the Vice Premier Qian Qichen.  Additionally, according to a source close to the Washington Post, managing editor Bob Kaiser and Beijing Bureau chief Steve Mufson raised Pomfret’s visa directly with then President Jiang Zemin in an off-the-record conversation during their October 1997 interview.  As he recounts in Chinese Lessons, Pomfret himself decided to write a “self-examination” about his prior attitude in response to a Chinese government official’s request that Pomfret write a letter applying for the Washington Post position.  On Christmas Eve 1997, Pomfret received word that his visa was approved.  Since then, Pomfret has never had a visa problem.

Journalist Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson

If Tiananmen was Pomfret’s roadblock to China, Falun Gong was Ian Johnson’s.  Between 1997 and 2001, Johnson was one of the Wall Street Journal‘s China correspondents.  Like Pomfret, he was covering China during a major crackdown, this time on a burgeoning spiritual group that was able to amass tens of millions of followers in less than ten years: Falun Gong.

In the beginning, Falun Gong, which uses traditional qigong exercises and draws upon the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, was ambiguously tolerated by the Chinese government.  But on April 25, 1999, in response to a negative article published in a state-run magazine, an estimated 10,000 Falun Gong followers conducted a day-long silent meditation protest outside the Chinese government headquarters.  As Johnson recounts in his book, Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, the fact that one group could amass so many people in one place without the State Security knowing, horrified the leadership.  Falun Gong – now perceived as a threat to its rule – would no longer be tolerated.  In July 1999, Beijing banned Falun Gong and began a violent crackdown against members of the group.  As Johnson recounted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the crackdown for the Wall Street Journal and later in Wild Grass, Beijing permitted the crackdown to be enforced by all means necessary, even if that meant that many would die, a fact that Johnson recounted in his reports.

In 2001, Johnson left China to cover Europe for the Wall Street Journal.  But in 2007, the Journal sought to bring him back to China. Again, prior China coverage would prove problematic in obtaining a visa and would require the powerful resources of his news agency. According to an individual who had been involved in the matter, the Chinese government initially told the Journal that Johnson would never get back into China.  But as this source told China Law & Policy, the Journal began its lobbying in earnest with senior editors meeting with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. and eventually Rupert Murdoch raising the issue directly with the Chinese government in Beijing.  Johnson also had to write a self-criticism.  But by 2008, right around the time Beijing was to host the Olympics, Johnson’s journalist visa was informally approved and was issued in early 2009 according to the source involved in the matter.

But less than a year later, Andrew Higgins’ attempt to obtain a journalist visa would end with a different outcome.  In 2009, the Washington

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

Post hired Higgins ostensibly as its Beijing Bureau chief and again the Post would need to lobby to get their chief into China as prior reporting had put Higgins on a blacklist. In 1991, Higgins was a Beijing correspondent to the British Independent newspaper, covering the Chinese government’s secret crackdown against ethnic Mongolian intellectuals in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.  According to a Human Rights Watch report, after being found in possession of a top secret Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document that ordered the harsh crackdown(a.k.a. Document 13), Higgins was expelled from China.

This time the Post was not able to overcome Higgins’ past.  According to a source involved in the Higgins negotiations, the Post raised Higgins’ visa issue in every high-level meeting with  Chinese officials, including the Chinese Ambassador; then executive editor Marcus Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth went to Beijing to meet with China’s foreign minister about Higgins visa; and Don Graham, head of the Post at the time reached out to influential Americans, including Henry Kissinger, to assist with getting Higgins a visa.  But the Post‘s efforts failed.  Unable to obtain a residential journalist visa to China, in 2012, Higgins left the Post to cover Europe for the New York Times.

Since the Higgins’ incident, at least two other journalists – Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan – have been effectively denied journalist visa and many others, including Philip Pan and Chris Buckley, both of the New York Times, have been waiting more than a year for their visa request to be approved.

The Center Cannot Hold:  China’s Visa Policy Demonstrates its Continued Insecurity

Was Higgins the harbinger of China’s changed and harsher foreign journalist policy?  Another source familiar with the Higgins’ negotiations did question the strategy of the Post, noting that there were certain missed opportunities, that the Post did not bring in top people, like a Katherine Graham or a Rupert Murdoch, to close the deal, and Higgins’ alleged crime – being found in possession of top secret CCP documents – was inherently harder to overcome than Pomfret or Johnson’s issues.  But the source did tell China Law & Policy that the Higgins’ debacle reflected a China taking a harder line against foreign journalists.

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Some, such as Jim Sciutto, former chief of staff to Ambassador Gary Locke, have argued that the Chinese government’s current attempts to censor foreign journalists through the visa process reflect a “more confident Chinese government.” Certainly, in 1997, when the Washington Post was seeking Pomfret’s visa, China was desperate to be in the good graces of the U.S. government as it anxiously awaited WTO entry.  In 2008, when the Wall Street Journal sought to get Johnson back, China was attempting to pull off its first Olympic games with as little criticism as possible.  But Higgins visa application came after these events, when China has made it through the 2008 economic crash and in 2010, surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

But the type of reporting the Chinese government is currently trying to suppress does not reflect a Chinese Communist Party secure in its rule; instead, it demonstrates a government cognizant of the fact that its power is more vulnerable now than ever before.

The Chinese government’s current targets are the New York Times and Bloomberg, two news agencies that wrote hard-hitting articles exposing the corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese government and the CCP.   According to one source that China Law & Policy spoke to, these articles represent more of threat to the CCP’s legitimacy than Tiananmen, Falun Gong or any other taboo topic.  Tiananmen, Falun Gong, and Tibet are not issues that are necessarily on the minds of every Chinese person.  But corruption is.  If the media, even the foreign media, is able to prove that the Chinese leaders are corrupt, these allegations go to the very core of the government’s authority.

For the leaders of China, this threat is not theoretical.  In a September 2013 People’s Daily editorial, Li Congjun, the head of the state-run Xinhua News Agency, used particularly harsh language to  lambast the foreign press.  Referring to certain unnamed foreign media outlets as “hostile i_will_crush_you_loldog_elephant_ears_pajama_pals_pet_costumeforces,” Li went on to criticize these outlets for smearing the CCP and China with made up stories which further weakens China’s interests and national standing.

In the introduction to his 2004 book Wild Grass, Johnson described the Chinese government’s message to current threats to its rule as “we are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you.”  In 2004, that message was for Falun Gong practitioners.  Today the message is still the same, but this time it is for foreign media companies and their reporters.

The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer: The Weakened State of US Media Companies

The Chinese government may be weak, but as its threats to the New York Times and Bloomberg demonstrates, it may very well still have the power to crush.  In elaborating on allegations of self-censorship, Brauchli was adamant that such a thing would not happen.  “Our credibility has always rested heavily upon the depth, quality and accuracy of our reports.  Any type of self-censorship could have impaired our success as a journalistic enterprise.”

This is likely true on the journalist side of the enterprise, but as news agencies find it harder and harder to turn a profit, at what point is the business side able to unduly influence editorial decisions.   Two weeks ago, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, reported that with its Chinese website blocked, the Times had $3 million in lost revenue (the Times2012 revenue was $2.32 billion).  Similarly, Bloomberg News’ parent company, Bloomberg L.P., makes 85% of its profit through the sale of its stock-trading Bloomberg terminals.  With only 3,000 terminals throughout China, the market is undersaturated (compared with 10,000 terminals in Hong Kong and 100,000 in the United States).  Finally, even the Washington Post appears to rely on China for revenue.  Since 2010, the China Daily has paid for “China Watch” to the supplement section of the Post‘s website.

As Evan Osonos, former New Yorker China correspondent pointed out at some point business considerations must come into play: “the prospect of taking an expensive stand against a foreign state is unappealing, especially when it might mean giving up their dreams for future growth in China.”

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just  trade as new Ambassador to China

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just trade as new Ambassador to China

The Higgins visa incident and subsequent incidents might indicate more than just a scared China; it might also represent news agencies no longer powerful enough to fight on their own for the principle of freedom of the press.  As a result, even if the immediate crisis with the Times and Bloomberg journalists pass, there is still a pressing need for the U.S. government to remain vocal on this issue especially as it seeks to bring a new ambassador to China.

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone

By , December 4, 2013

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

While the New York Times might still be on a path to publish at all costs, other news organizations might not be so immune to the Chinese government’s attempts to muzzle more critical voices.

Bloomberg-News-logoLast month, Hong Kong-based Bloomberg New reporters leaked to the press allegations of self-censorship at the organization.  According to the staff’s accounts, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler killed an explosive investigative piece that revealed the financial ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, one of the “redlines” that often leads to visa troubles.  These Bloomberg reporters told the New York Times that Winkler’s concern was that if they published the story, his journalists might be kicked out of China altogether, leaving the organization unable to cover anything.  Bloomberg has denied the allegations and has stated that the story is still active.  It has yet to be published.

But if these allegations are true, Bloomberg would not be the first major U.S. news organization to participate in eyebrow-raising and possibly self-censoring behavior.  The Washington Post had a similar curious event, where the long arms of the Chinese censors potentially reached the Post‘s headquarters in Washington.

An Example of Self-Censorship in the U.S. Capitol?

In late 2009, Peter Manseau was studying for his doctorate in religion at Georgetown University.  Manseau was far from a China hand but through his religious studies became intrigued by Eastern religions, in particular the use of qigong in traditional Chinese religions.  Coincidentally, 2009 also marked the ten year anniversary of the Chinese government’s public crackdown on the spiritual movement of Falun Gong, a movement the Chinese government has long considered a cult and a threat to its rule; it does not like to even be reminded of the group’s existence.  But with the anniversary, Washington D.C. was awash in Falun Gong protests and demonstrations.

Seeing these demonstrations, which usually included qigong movements, Manseau pitched an article idea to the Washington Post for a piece

Author Peter Manseau

Author Peter Manseau

focusing not so much on Falun Gong in China but more on what it is in the United States, in particular the groups that amass on the streets of D.C.  The Post liked the idea and Manseau began writing.  Because the piece was about individuals who lived in the District, it was to be a featured piece in the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine.  Manseau was under the impression that the story, scheduled to run at 4500 words, might even be a cover piece.   “They were entirely supportive,” he told China Law & Policy in a phone interview.

Although the article was to be D.C.-focused, there was no way to avoid the underlying political currents since his interviewees – two North American-born practitioners and one an exile from China – kept raising the issue of the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong.  “I reported the story out and realized that the story couldn’t run without contacting some Chinese official to comment” Manseau said in his phone interview.

On April 30, 2010, Manseau called the Chinese Embassy and spoke with its press person, Wang Baodong.  “He told me that he didn’t want the story to run. It wasn’t threatening in any way, but he did say something along the lines of ‘We would strongly encourage you not to write such a story.’ He then mentioned a top editor at the Post, and asked if the Sunday magazine was in this editor’s portfolio.” Manseau added Wang’s comments to his article and then on May 3, 2010, filed a final draft with the magazine.  Manseau believed that the story would run at the end of that month.

But it didn’t.  Instead, on May 7, 2010, Manseau learned that there was trouble with his article and on May 10, 2010, the Washington Post, once supportive of the piece, killed it.  The article never ran in the Post (an updated version was later republished by Salon as “Falun Gong’s March”).  For Manseau what was interesting was that he wasn’t paid a “kill fee,” a percentage of the full fee, usually 10 to 30%, that is contractually obligated to be paid if the article is cancelled.  Instead, as he told China Law & Policy, he was paid in full.

Was there Chinese government pressure at play here?  Manseau believes so.  He told China Law & Policy that at the time he learned that Wang Baodong, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson, raised the issue of his Falun Gong piece directly with high-ups at the Post.

China Law & Policy‘s calls to the Washington Post to verify or deny these allegations were not returned.

What is curious about Manseau’s story is that its time frame, especially when the article was killed, coincides with the Washington Post‘s struggle to obtain its China correspondent, Andrew Higgins, a journalist visa.  Hired in 2009, Higgins was in Hong Kong, anxiously awaiting to start reporting from China.  But because of his prior work and expulsion from China in 1991, the Chinese government was not moving quickly on his application (although it did give him a temporary visa to cover President Obama’s China trip in November 2009).

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

In fact, in March 2010, just a little less than two months before Manseau called the Chinese Embassy, the Washington Post enlisted the help of Henry Kissinger in its efforts to get Higgins a residential journalist visa.  In fact, the foreign editor at the time, Douglas Jehl, told the Washington City Paper that the Post was talking to the Chinese Embassy about Higgins visa and found that “[t]he embassy has been very responsive to our requests.”

In 2010, when Manseau was in the midst of writing his piece, Jehl was having conversations with the Chinese Embassy about Higgins’ visa.  Did the Embassy – as a quid pro quo – put pressure on the Post to pull the Falun Gong piece after Manseau showed his hand to Wang?  If it did put pressure on the Post, can the Post be blamed for pulling the article in the hopes that its reporter, desperate to enter China, would be allowed in?  More importantly, how many other editors at different news organizations have had to make similar pacts?

‘Pleased To Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name:’ The World Media Summit

One such pact that seems to be becoming a regular affair is the “World Media Summit,” an event that the China Media Project aptly described as “the media event all major global media players attend but none bother to actually cover.”

Created in 2008, the year China was to hold its first Olympics, the World Media Summit is the brainchild of Li Congjun, president of the

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

state-run Xinhua News Agency and formerly deputy chief of China’s Central Propaganda Department.  With many using the Beijing Games as an opportunity to criticize China’s human rights record, 2008 was the year that the Chinese government was made painfully aware of its image problem in the Western press.

Enter Li Congjun.  According to the Summit’s English website, Li held conversations with many of the top movers and shakers of the Western media who were in town for the Games: Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, Tom Curley, President of the Associated Press, David Schlesinger, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and Mark Thompson, Director of BBC.  These conversations allegedly resulted in everyone agreeing to “enhance cooperation in a win-win context” and the creation of the World Media Summit.

Since those first formative talks, there have been two World Media Summits, with the list of significant media outlets in attendance increasing.  This past October, the World Media Summit’s presiding members, which according to Chinese news reports include executives from News Corporation, the Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, BBC, Turner Broadcasting, Google, Al Jazeera, the New York Times Company, NBC News, MIH Group, and Kasturi & Sons Limited, held a meeting in Hangzhou, China to discuss the next summit and the possibility of creating an international prize for journalism.

China's World Media Summit

China’s World Media Summit

It not out of the ordinary for the Chinese government to create an alternative reality, a sort of cocoon world.  Largely its internet is sealed off from the rest of the world – while everyone else is on Twitter, the Chinese are on Weibo – and in response to some of the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s choices, in particular the selection of human rights activist and current prisoner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government created the Confucius Peace Prize.  Vladimir Putin was the 2011 winner.

Thus, the idea of creating an international journalism prize without acknowledging the existence of already established journalist prizes is not necessarily bizarre for China.  But it is a bit curious that media outlets like the New York Times and the Associated Press, would be on board with such a prize.  And who would determine the criteria?  Unfortunately  the World Media Summit is not a transparent event, at least not in the Western press.  Agendas, agreements or any other outcomes are not made public.

But what was made public – at least by Xinhua News – is that the New York Times will host the 2014 World Media Summit followed by Al Jazeera in 2016.  Not surprisingly, other than Bloomberg, these two media companies have faced some of the harshest journalist visa treatment.  As recounted in Part 1, two New York Times reporters have been waiting for over a year for their journalist visas.  Al Jazeera’s situation is even worse.  In 2012, it had to completely shut down its China operations when the Chinese government conveniently failed to renew its sole reporter, Melissa Chan’s, journalist visa before it expired.  Chan, who had been covering sensitive subjects like China’s use of “black jails” to quash dissent, fled China in May 2012.

Is hosting the World Media Summit the quid pro quo for positive visa treatment?  Will the New York Times and Al Jazeera reporters now be

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

able to get into China?  If Manseau’s tale is correct, the answer is no.  His Falun Gong piece was killed but Andrew Higgins never got his journalist visa.  Similarly, Bloomberg’s recent actions – if true – have not put its journalists in a better position.  At Tuesday’s no-questions press conference between  U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, Bloomberg reporter and U.K. citizen Robert Hutton was blocked from attending.  The Chinese government has denied that this was intentional.

Why does this keep happening?  Why does each media company think that it will be the exception?  It is the lack of unity among the major media outlets in dealing with the Chinese government about their journalists’ visas that is a weakness.  Each thinks it can make its own compromise with Beijing.  And that is their second fallacy: seeking compromise.  Compromise is not usually what authoritarian regimes do.  Control and domination – like the Chinese government’s relationship with its domestic media – is the usual end game.  Even with a united front, this is likely not a battle that the Western media can win on its own.

For Part 3, which examines the U.S. government’s present response and what it can do to change this situation, is posted 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

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: