Is foreign journalism under threat in China?

November 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Bob Dietz on the recent events that have raised questions about the freedom of the foreign press in China. A prominent journalist for Reuters who had been reporting there for years was denied a visa. Bloomberg News has denied a report that they withheld publication of an investigative story for fear they would be kicked out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A recent string of events have raised questions about the freedom of the foreign press in China. A prominent journalist for Reuters who had been reporting there for years was denied a visa by the Chinese government with no reason given. This after revelations that Bloomberg News withheld publication of an investigative story for fear the news agency would be kicked out of the country – a charge the company has vehemently denied.

Earlier I sat down with Bob Dietz, who is Coordinator of the Asia Program, for the Committee to Protect Journalists.  I began by asking him if these events were business as usual or something more.

BOB DIETZ: I think this is basically business as usual. China’s long had a contentious atmosphere, approach toward media. It is cyclical. You come into periods of real anger. You’re looking at a new government trying to come in,  assert its authority and set new rules for the media.

The local media, the Chinese media, has grown accustomed to dealing with this government and the governments that have come before. What we’re seeing now is a greater animosity toward foreign journalists.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s motivating that? 

BOB DIETZ: I think increasingly the government has taken on a reform atmosphere itself and has taken on corruption at certain levels in the government. What it doesn’t like is for foreign journalists or even local journalists to do that on their own. They want to control that process.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So it’s OK for their own journalists to expose their dirty laundry they don’t want it aired by others?

BOB DIETZ: Not even their own media so much as their state-controlled media. They way they control the story — how it’s represented — who is the bad guy and who is the good guy and how it should be portrayed. 

What they don’t like is is when the local media starts to get rambunctious and starts to run with the story themselves or discovers other corruption that the governments doesn’t want revealed or isn’t ready to have revealed. Or when the foreign media do that.

There was a recent report out by foreign press that was in China, and they really rattled off a list of concerns that they have — they listed not only intimidation of themselves and their sources and even cyber attacks against them.

BOB DIETZ: It’s the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China, the FCCC. They released a report, did a survey in May and in the middle of the year they brought it out. The vast majority of the respondents said that things were either getting worse or that they’ve stayed static and aren’t improving in China. And you have the official central government level where you get this bureaucratic harassment or you get called into the foreign ministry or the information ministry and lectured. 

When you’re doing stories that are at the ground level or provincial level in China there you’re dealing with a different sort of problem, really a threat. You have cops, thugs, village officials who really have this over-developed sense of entitlement and power not ready to accommodate media, neither Chinese media or foreign media. Local police can really get rough with demonstrators. There are a tremendous number of demonstrations in China. And caught in the melee very often you’ll have journalists. 

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So is the intimidation working? Are foreign news agencies intimidated by working in China or working freely in China?

BOB DIETZ: I look at the most of the wire services I see, and I’m an old AP reporter myself, and I don’t see them cutting corners. But I do speak to journalists there and somehow they know the government is watching and if they don’t like what they are writing there’ll be some price to pay.  Either the grand price of being kicked out or something smaller. 

Journalists working in China assume at all times that their phone are bugged and their email traffic is being monitored. Even if it isn’t happening on a specific individual case, people are always operating with that assumption in their back of their mind. 

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bob Dietz from the Committee to Protect Journalists thanks so much.

BOB DIETZ: Thanks Hari.