The arrest of two Agence France-Presse reporters on 12 September is the latest in a string of cases of foreign journalists being obstructed in their work. They show that the less stringent regulations introduced in January are being applied erratically and only when less sensitive issues are involved. At least 32 foreign journalists have been detained or prevented by police from doing reports since January.
“The way the authorities have treated journalists from Agence France-Presse, the BBC World Service and other international news organisations in recent weeks do not bode well for the ability of the foreign media to work during the Olympic Games,” the press freedom organisation said.
“These are not unfortunate blunders,” Reporters Without Borders continued. “They are the result of a clear lack of goodwill on the part of the police, who refuse to let reporters travel and investigate freely. We call on the International Olympic Committee to intervene with the Chinese authorities to ensure that the rules introduced in January are finally respected.”
The two AFP reporters were detained for five hours on September 12th when they tried to go to Shengyou, a village south of Beijing where thugs working for local Communist Party officials killed six people and injured about 50 others in a dispute over land in 2005. The police accused the journalists of working clandestinely and demanded the name of their local contacts. AFP said the local police refused to be guided by the new rules for the foreign press.
BBC World Service reporter Dan Griffiths was also detained and turned back when he recently tried to go to Shengyou. According to his account of the experience on the BBC website, the police asked him: “What are you doing here? Who are your contacts in the village?” They escorted him to the nearest town, Dingzhou, and then to the motorway leading back to Beijing. He asked them if they would treat journalists like this when China hosts the Olympics. “Oh, everything will be different then,” an official replied. Foreign ministry officials apologised later.
In another recent case, police prevented a group of seven foreign journalists, including a TV crew, from meeting Yuan Weijing, the wife of imprisoned lawyer Chen Guangcheng, at the Beijing home of two activists, Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, on 24 August. The police said Hu Jia was under house arrest and made the reporters register at the neighbourhood police station.
Security guards at a court in Yixing prevented reporters from the New York Times and South China Morning Post from attending the trial of environmental activist Wu Lihong on 10 August. Plain-clothes police also harassed reporters waiting outside the courthouse.
Many human rights activists have also been harassed by the political police for talking to the foreign media. Activist Yao Lifa, for example was accused on 11 September of spreading rumours after he gave an interview to Radio Free Asia.
Forty per cent of the 163 China-based foreign journalists polled by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) in 2007 said they had experienced some form of interference by the authorities since 1 January. A total of 157 incidents (arrests, surveillance, intimidation of sources, violence or threats) were reported to the FCCC. Asked if China had kept the promise made in 2001 by Wang Wei of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Games to give the foreign media complete freedom to work, 67 per cent said No. Only 8.6 per cent said Yes.