Heavy-Handed Response to Journalists in China Becomes the Story

BY Larisa Epatko  March 9, 2011 at 5:07 PM EDT

Anonymous calls on the Internet for Tunisian-inspired protests in China roused several hundred people to protest on Feb. 20, but the heavy-handed response that followed actually became the story, said Kathleen McLaughlin, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Beijing.

The following week, police called journalists warning them not to cover any further protests at Wangfujing, a shopping mall district in Beijing. The approach backfired, and dozens of reporters flocked to the scene, only to find no one visibly protesting but many uniformed and plan clothes police.

CNN’s Beijing correspondent Eunice Yoon describes the ensuing rough handling of reporters:

BBC News also outlined further incidents of reporters being detained, followed and threatened with having their work visas revoked.

“The irony of all of this is the journalists have become the story,” since there were very few protesters, McLaughlin said.

She said of her fellow foreign journalists, “Pretty much everyone I know at this point has had some interaction with the police or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whether it’s being called in and questioned about their activities or called and warned to obey the rules.”

But those rules appear to have changed. Leading up to China hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, the the government relaxed rules that used to require journalists to obtain prior permission from the government to interview people or travel to another city to report. But now it appears the restrictions are falling back in place.

Jerome Cohen, adjunct senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in addition to journalists, human rights lawyers also are being detained, sometimes held for days or even longer, and in the worst cases beaten before they are released.

“Journalists and lawyers are the key to any rule of law regime. The lawyers are now particularly being victimized and suppressed in China,” he said. “It’s a very sad time now for efforts to build a legal system in China that can guarantee people a minimum of personal security.”

The Chinese leadership is fearful of the protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, and of possible internal dissent, and is responding by trying to clamp down on the media, Internet and all new technology, said Cohen.

“Journalists by their vocation are inevitably going to be continually clashing with the regime — especially foreign journalists,” he added.

McLaughlin said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been asked repeatedly in the last week if the rules on reporting have changed, but has said no, the rules have always been this way.

“I think what everyone is hoping is that it was an extreme reaction to potential unrest and that things are going to calm down and go back to normal,” she said. “I can’t predict, but it could be a positive thing that they don’t want to change the rules on paper because that could mean that we might be going back to normal once things calm down.”

Celia Hatton of CBS News explains how her team tries to get around the challenges of covering sensitive topics in China:

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