The Chinese authorities are on the whole respecting the new regulations for foreign journalists that took effect nearly 50 days ago although the foreign ministry has clearly not given provincial officials enough information about the changes and there have been at least five cases of correspondents being prevented from meeting dissidents, Reporters Without Borders said today.
“These new rules are a positive development but much remains to be done,” Reporters Without Borders said. “In particular, we call on Cai Wu, the head of the government information office, to suppress the temporary nature of this changes. A reversion to the former archaic rules after the Olympic Games, is out of the question.”
The press freedom organisation continued: “It is also outrageous that the authorities still prevent the public and foreign residents from freely visiting any website, listening to foreign radio programmes (by jamming them) and reading the articles written by the thousands of foreign correspondents.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “The government must pursue its reforms by allowing foreign news media to employ Chinese journalists and to make unrestricted visits to Tibet and Xinjiang. The rules imposed by the Propaganda Department on the Chinese media also need to be eased as a matter or urgency. The dual standards that are being established in the run-up to the Olympic Games are unacceptable.”
Several foreign news organisations have successfully tested the new rules that took effect on 1 January. For example, Reuters journalists have conducted working visits to several provinces including Inner Mongolia that previously would have been forbidden. They were able, for example, to meet the wife of Hada, the editor of a Mongolian publication who has been imprisoned since 1995. A Reuters reporter had been requesting permission to conduct this interview since 2004. Even the official news agency Xinhua described the report as historic, although it did not name Hada.
Reuters was also able to interview Bao Tong, an assistant of the former, pro-reform Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, although foreign correspondents were prevented from visiting Zhao’s children. Reporters were also able to meeting human rights activist Hu Jia at his Beijing home although some of them had their passports checked by the police.
On the other hand, the police have prevented journalists from meeting the Shanghai-based lawyer Zheng Enchong, the lawyer Gao Zhisheng and the anti-AIDS doctor Gao Yaojie. Policemen prevented a Japanese correspondent from entering Gao Zhisheng’s home on the grounds that he did not have the required official permission.
The Beijing-based correspondents of Hong Kong news organisations confirmed that they have been able to interview academics and experts in the past few weeks without going through the authorities. The weekly Nanfang Zhoumo quoted Chan Wing-kai, the correspondent of the daily Ming Pao, as saying he was able to work much faster.
There have been several examples of local authorities not being correctly informed about the new regulations. Mai Jiexi of the British news weekly The Economist had problems with officials in the central province of Henan while doing a report on AIDS. A quick call to the foreign affairs ministry (“Waiban”) sufficed to convince them to let him work. Nonetheless, the police went ahead of him to some villages to tell residents not to give him interviews.
Some foreign journalists play down the impact of the new rules. “Most of us had not been requesting prior permission for several years,” one European correspondent said. “It can help with interviewing officials. But they are not always aware of the new rules in the provinces.” CNN reporter Jaime FlorCruz confirmed in an interview for a Chinese newspaper that most local officials were often unaware of the changes that took effect on 1 January.
The government in Beijing has given assurances that journalists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao will enjoy the same rights. Hong Kong journalists told Reporters Without Borders this was a “major change” as they previously had to request permission from the Chinese Liaison Bureau in the former British colony before going to cover a story on the Chinese mainland.
The Taiwanese media have also benefited from the changes. The previous rules, dating from 1996, required them to first request permission from the Beijing government’s Bureau of Taiwan Affairs. Then the All-China Journalists Association had to give its assent. Taiwanese reporters continue to be subject to special surveillance in the field by the Bureau of Taiwan Affairs and the Public Security Department.
A Taiwanese journalist confirmed that crews from three Taipei-based TV stations were able to go to the southern province on Yunnan without requesting prior permission on 9 January to cover the arrest of an alleged Taiwanese criminal. On the other hand, soldiers turned back several Hong Kong reporters who went to cover a military aircraft crash on 9 January in the southern province of Guangdong.
According to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, the new rules also apply to Tibet and Xinjiang. So far, there have been no reports of any refusals or incidents there, bearing in mind that all foreigners need special authorisation to visit these regions. A European journalist told Reporters Without Borders that protracted negotiations were still needed to obtain a laissez-passer.
Several journalists voiced concern that the authorities are stepping up pressure on the Chinese they want to interview. Article 6 of the new rules stipulates that journalists must obtain the consent of the persons they interview.
At the same time, the Public Security Department has not relaxed its supervision of dissident Chinse journalists and writers. Around 20 of them were prevented from going to Hong Kong at the beginning of this month to attend a conference organised by the International PEN writers’ association. Writers Zan Aizong and Zhao Dagong were turned back at the “border” between mainland China and Hong Kong.
Chinese journalists who work for Chinese media that are based outside of the country are still denied accreditation and the right to work freely. Journalists working for the website Boxun were told by the authorities that the new rules solely concern foreign journalists employed by foreign news media.