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Foreign journalists in China face surveillance, harassment, and visa problems: Report

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Foreign journalists reporting in China face obstacles, including visa problems, surveillance and harassment by police or other officials while on assignment, Voice of America (VOA) reported, citing the annual survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC).

However, reporting conditions in China have improved since the global pandemic, but the FCCC survey found that 81 per cent of respondents said that reporting conditions have “somewhat” improved, but nearly all the journalists said the reporting environment does not meet international standards.

The key issues remain, including difficulty in obtaining long-term visas, leaving foreign news bureaus understaffed; reporters being obstructed by police or other officials while on assignment, and harassment when reporting in Xinjiang and border regions, VOA reported.

The FCCC surveys over 155 correspondents every year, covering, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America.

Its latest report is based on 101 responses to that survey, which looked at working conditions for foreign media.

According to the report, one of the main difficulties is securing visas. Around one-third of respondents said their bureaus remain understaffed because of difficulty in extending or successfully applying for new visas, reported VOA.

Moreover, Chinese authorities have mostly issued short-term visas.

Earlier in 2023, only one US outlet was able to get accreditation, according to the FCCC, adding that the Canadian media have had no resident reporters in China for four years.

Respondents said that as pandemic restrictions eased, they have returned to uncertainty over what stories will result in surveillance or trips being cut short.

Four out of five of those surveyed said that they experienced interference and harassment, and more than half reported being blocked from reporting or filming by police or other officials, according to VOA.

According to the FCCC report, nearly all those reported from Xinjiang or Tibet highlighted that they experienced increased harassment.

Additionally, journalists who reported or tried to travel to other border regions in the country also reported harassment.

After Xinjiang, the area with the most reported obstacles was the border with Russia, with 79 per cent of journalists trying to report from there experiencing difficulties.

One journalist at a European outlet described being followed by several vehicles during a reporting trip to a town, along the Russian border, the report stated.

“They did not interfere during any of our interviews, although they did reach out to at least one interviewee afterwards. When we checked into our hotel, the hotel staff referred to us as ‘the journalists state security had warned them about’ earlier,” the reporter said.

Meanwhile, similar experiences were reported by journalists who traveled to Inner Mongolia, VOA reported.

The FCCC stated that three cases of plainclothes individuals warned people not to speak with journalists or to follow news crews.

“Foreign journalists are, according to China’s own regulations, free to report on a wide range of topics and speak to whomever they want,” the FCCC said in its report.

The survey showed an increase in journalists being “invited for tea,” a tactic where Chinese officials invite foreign media to an informal meeting.

During the meetings, journalists are asked about their coverage and while the FCCC says the exchanges are usually “cordial,” it notes they can be used as a form of intimidation.

Moreover, ‘surveillance’ is another concern, with respondents seeing more sources declining interviews or requesting anonymity.

Nearly all those surveyed said that they believe they are targeted with digital surveillance through communication apps or that their homes or offices are bugged.

Moreover, four of those surveyed said that officials referenced information that could have been known only if the authorities had access to private accounts or devices, reported VOA.

According to the FCCC, the restrictions and harassment have prevented the media from reporting a more balanced and nuanced picture of life in China.

“The result is coverage of China that cannot fully capture its massively complex dynamics,” the FCCC said in its report. “Correspondents, restricted in where they can travel and with whom they can speak, no longer have the luxury of delving deeply into topics and painting a nuanced picture of the country. The result is coverage of China that is narrower in scope and less representative.”

On the Press Freedom Index, China has a poor press freedom record, ranking 179 out of 180 countries, where one shows the best environment.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, said China is conducting a “campaign of repression against journalism and the right to information worldwide.”