Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.06.18

Distressed Foreign Correspondents in China Closure of Beijing Office of Al Jazeera (Study of "China Inc." - No. 162)

English translated version of the article on "JB Press," May 11, 2012.

The Qatar-based satellite TV broadcasting network Al Jazeera closed the English- language division of its Beijing branch on May 8, 2012. The decision was the result of Chinese authorities' refusal to renew the journalist visa of one of the network's Beijing-based reporters, which effectively expelled her from China.

Way to go, China! Isn't it incredible how quickly they retaliate against the foreign media? Their decision was impeccably timed as well, coming just four days after the Fourth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which was disrupted by the issue of the human-rights activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng. No sooner had senior American officials including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton left China and the news of Chen's "study abroad" in the United States quieted down than the Al Jazeera reporter's press card was revoked. The Chinese government is not playing games.

Instead of the topic I was planning to address, I would like to consider the distress and sorrow experienced by foreign correspondents in China.


First Expulsion of a Foreign Correspondent in a While
You may be wondering why the government chose this moment to refuse to renew the journalist's credentials. It is the first "deportation" of a foreign correspondent by the Chinese government in fourteen years. The last occasion was a Japanese journalist of one of the largest daily newspapers who was expelled in 1998 under accusation of "committing an illegal act in his newsgathering activities." A German correspondent was also expelled around the same time for similar reasons.

I started working in Beijing in October 2000, two years after the above-mentioned incidents. I have not heard of any "deportation" of foreign correspondents since then. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not divulged its reason for its recent decision to deny the renewal of press credentials. Many articles have been published by the Western media speculating about the reasons. Some media said that Chinese authorities had a problem with a documentary broadcast by Al Jazeera last November.

Indeed, it was provocative enough to introduce China's laogai (reform though labor) camps or "re-education labor camps" as "twenty-first-century slavery."

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) in Beijing published its statement on May 8 criticizing Chinese authorities, saying, "This is the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China." Oh, that brings back good memories! The FCCC is still going strong.


The FCCC, a Mere Informal Group
Actually, I belonged to the FCCC from 2000 to 2004. Precisely speaking, I was one of the "Associate Members." The FCCC accepted the membership of non-journalists, such as attachés of foreign embassies. That "generous" attitude has not changed yet.

Correspondent Members of the FCCC included not only China experts but also some powerful journalists, such as a deputy editor of a major U.S. publication like the New York Times. They were not able to speak Chinese, but could be the best of the best as journalists in their headquarters.

Nonetheless, the FCCC has low status in China. It is not officially recognized by Chinese authorities. An organization of foreign correspondents itself is "illegal" under the Chinese system. Therefore, it is not officially entitled to contact or negotiate with the relevant Chinese authorities, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the State Council's General Administration of Press and Publication agency.

This situation in return may make members of the FCCC more firmly united than you can imagine. When I was in Beijing, the FCCC was a small, cash-strapped organization. Nowadays, it has opened its own website and its members are constantly sharing information with each other.


The Wisdom of FCCC Members
You can find interesting information on the FCCC website. All over China, foreign correspondents face various obstacles in their work, and sometimes they are assaulted. The FCCC provides on its website a region-by-region database of such incidents that is available not only to its members, but to the general public as well.

Even more impressive is the ""Reporters' Guide," which provides a list of important tips for foreign correspondents covering China. Very concrete and practical, the guide is full of useful guidelines. It is worth reading more than once.

I would like to briefly introduce the contents of the "Reporters' Guide" below.

* Don't leave home without it
Reporters are advised to carry their passports as well as Foreign Ministry-issued press cards, their residence registration certificates provided by the local police and their copies at all times. It is also useful to carry a copy of the Chinese regulations on foreign journalists.

* China's reporting rules
The point here is that foreign journalists can carry out their newsgathering activities "only in accordance with the rules and regulations of China."

* If you get detained
Enforcement of most rules in China is uneven. Keep your cool and avoid escalating the situation. Anger can be counterproductive. Be polite. But be a tough negotiator. Often a foreign correspondent can negotiate his/her release without involving embassies or additional Chinese government departments.

* Know your rights
Local police detain a suspect routinely for a maximum of 37 days. One of their favorite law enforcement categories is "disrupting public order." Police are authorized to search the body and personal belongings of a criminal suspect. The rights of foreigners detained by the Chinese police are usually governed by the bilateral agreement that exists between China and the foreign national's government.

* Sensitive areas and topics
Tibet, Xinjiang, military areas, border areas (with North Korea or Myanmar), mental hospitals, prisons, labor camps, space exploration facilities, courts dealing with human rights issues, areas with a high concentration of HIV-AIDS patients, land disputes, social problems, corruption cases, religion, North Korean refugees and etc. etc.

* Reporting and travelling safely
Assume mobile phones are being monitored. Change your phone chip frequently. Keep mobile phones possibly known to authorities switched off to prevent your location from being tracked. Try to avoid talking to people in public spaces in any area considered sensitive. Don't carry contact information of sources to protect them.

Try as much as possible not to draw attention to yourself while travelling. Dress like a backpacker. Try to avoid driving at night. Purchase train or plane tickets at the station or airport as late as possible.

Change a taxi when you cross provincial borders. In sensitive regions, check in to a hotel as late as possible and check out before business hours.

* Protecting your sources
Remember that in sensitive areas or on sensitive stories your Chinese contacts are usually more at risk than you. Make sure people you speak to are fully informed about what you intend to do and what risks they may face.

* Working with assistants
Authorities in China may try to get information on your reporting plans from your local assistants. They may sometimes intimidate their families. Do not pressure them to tell you about their meetings with local authorities. Never ask your assistant to do something that is considered illegal. Do not require them to hide your activities from security agents because such efforts often backfire and cause more problems than full disclosure.

Avoid taking your assistant to sensitive areas as a translator. If you need translation, prepare to interpret interviews by mobile phone. If you and your assistant are detained, try not to become separated from your assistant. If you are separated, your assistant may be treated very roughly. 
* TV reporting tips

* Government contacts

* How to open a news bureau

* One journalist's view

I should stop here to keep this list from getting too long. If you are interested, please read the original English version at the above-mentioned website. I suspect that the above citations give you a good sense of how difficult it is for foreign correspondents to cover China and the size of the risks they take in doing so.

When Melissa Chan, the journalist who was "deported" from China this time, arrived at her position in Beijing in 2007, she must have read the FCCC's "Reporters' Guide," but she was "deported" all the same. This is the reality of foreign correspondents in China.

I was working in Beijing, but as a diplomat with a certain amount of diplomatic protection. Therefore, I do not really know the distress and sorrow experienced by foreign correspondents (including Japanese reporters) in China. I would like to pay my heartfelt respect to all journalists who carry out their reporting activities in China, and would like to wish them the best of luck and health.   


(This article first appeared in Japanese on "JB Press" on May 11, 2012.)