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Chinese officials stifle, expel foreign journalists for doing their job

In the last year, Chinese officials have singled out foreign journalists and denied them access to carry out their work — in some cases even pressured them to leave the country, according to a new report. The Chinese government has claimed it to be a reciprocation for treatment of Chinese journalists in the U.S. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports from Beijing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An alarming new report accuses authorities in China of stepping up their efforts to harass and intimidate foreign journalists.

    Over the past year, Chinese officials, claiming to guard public health, have singled out journalists, denied them access to carry out their work and, in some cases, pressured them to leave the country.

    Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports from Beijing.

  • Patrick Fok:

    This is me getting cordoned in again.

    Actually, two minutes ago, I was told I wasn't allowed to stand on the pavement here. But now we're being ushered back onto it. There's going to be a little bit of a game of cat and mouse all day. We will be moved from one spot to another, because these guys really don't want us to be reporting on this story today.

    Reporters in China getting the sort of treatment we have gotten used to. This was at the trial hearing for Michael Kovrig, the Canadian charged with espionage today in Beijing.

    Security here went to great lengths to frustrate coverage of the story. But, according to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China's annual survey on media freedoms in the country, it's just the tip of the iceberg, and conditions for journalists in the past year have gotten much worse.

  • Steven Lee Myers:

    The restrictions that any foreign journalist face — faces inside China is extraordinarily onerous, and it makes it difficult at times to report.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers is one of several American correspondents caught up in a clampdown on foreign media in the past year.

    Last March, he was thrown out of China altogether along with the rest of The Times' American staff operating in the country, as ties flared between the Trump administration and Beijing over the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Steven Lee Myers:

    In the middle of a pandemic, we were given 10 days to pack up and leave.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The move came weeks after the Trump White House hit Chinese journalists working for five state-backed organizations deemed as propaganda outlets in the U.S. limiting the number of visas issued to them to 100.

    There were about 160 Chinese citizens working for those outlets at the time, which means around 60 were effectively expelled. American journalists working for The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal were all told to leave. China said it was a necessary response to the oppression its media organizations experienced in the U.S.

  • Steven Lee Myers:

    They couched it as being reciprocal, but, obviously, they targeted it at news organizations that they particularly didn't like.

    And whether or not it was proportionate, they would argue that it is, but the number of Chinese journalists allowed to operate even now is far greater than the number of Americans that are allowed to operate in China.

  • Patrick Fok:

    According to figures provided by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, there are now just 39 American journalists working in the country.

    But the worsening conditions for reporters here go beyond the diplomatic feud between China and the U.S. and the expulsions. The Foreign Correspondents' Club said in its report that all arms of state power were used to harass and intimidate journalists, and that new surveillance systems and strict controls on movement were implemented to limit them.

    We have all faced a challenging year as a result of the pandemic, but what's been frustrating for many of us journalists working here in China is that many of these systems and controls imposed by authorities didn't even apply to other people living here, whether they were Chinese or foreign.

    Notably, authorities created pressure for journalists and their news organizations by either refusing or delaying the process for the renewal of press cards required for them to work here. Some journalists surveyed by the report said they'd been forced to live and work in China on a series of short-term visas valid for between one and three months.

  • Keith Richburg:

    Which is very difficult, because, for journalists, they need to know that they have got some continuity in their job.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Keith Richburg is the director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center and a former China correspondent for The Washington Post.

    He says there's a growing sense in Beijing that China doesn't need foreign media as much as it did in the past, when it wanted to highlight to the world its rapid economic development. And he fears Hong Kong's become a more difficult place for journalists to work since national security legislation was rolled out in the territory last year.

  • Keith Richburg:

    They do seem to be moving more in that direction of the mainland, where they seem to see us not as doing a legitimate job and questioning — and being — questioning in a critical way. But they seem to think that, if we're not toeing the government line 100 percent, then, therefore, we're the enemy.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The cutting of press credentials and refusal to renew visas resulted in the largest expulsion of foreign journalists from China since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago.

    Many of the restrictions put in place in the last year have been done so in the name of public health and China's battle with the coronavirus. But several Western media reports say Beijing is retaliating against negative coverage of the outbreak in Wuhan and other sensitive topics.

  • Justine Jankowski:

    I think, in all the big crises that China goes through, they want to show that they handle it pretty well

    So, of course, every time we were — we, or foreign journalists, but also some Chinese journalists, of course, try to show a different reality or a different truth, of course, they have been kept from doing what they were doing.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Justine Jankowski is the China correspondent for French national broadcaster TF1.

  • Justine Jankowski:

    I basically couldn't enter.

  • Patrick Fok:

    She says she's frequently encountered roadblocks while covering the pandemic and other stories.

    But one of the most alarming incidents that occurred over the last year was when Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith were barred from leaving the country, allegedly for national security reasons. They were permitted to go only after a tense diplomatic standoff.

    Another Australian, Cheng Lei, who was a news anchor for state broadcaster CGTN, was arrested in September and charged with supplying state secrets overseas.

  • Justine Jankowski:

    Of course you feel more at risk, because you always believe that it's not going to happen to you, because you're not the main target or for some reasons. And then you read that and you're like, OK, that can actually happen to anyone, depending on the diplomatic situation between the countries.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Foreign correspondents aren't the only ones in the firing line. Chinese staff working for international media faced substantial pressure over their work.

    Journalist for Bloomberg news Haze Fan was detained in December. No details have been provided on where she is or what she's been detained for. People journalists sought to interview have faced threats and intimidation too, raising ethical concerns on reporting.

  • Justine Jankowski:

    We are definitely not the one taking the bigger risk. The Chinese people are, the ones who talk to us.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The Correspondents' Club noted the rapid decline in media freedom in China comes as it gears up to host the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

    There have been calls in the U.S. and elsewhere for a boycott of the Games over human rights concerns, including the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims and Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong. But Washington can play a part in reducing tensions that skyrocketed under the Trump administration, so that pressure is taken off journalists.

  • Keith Richburg:

    The Beijing authorities want a reset in their relations with the United States. One good place for the Biden administration to start would be to kind of call off this war that's seen journalists and reporters caught as crossfire.

  • Patrick Fok:

    It's hard to say if or when conditions will improve. But many agree that relations between China and the rest of the world won't get better without journalists building a better understanding of this complex and calculating global power.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Beijing.

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