Thursday, June 12, 2008

China imposes reporting restrictions in quake zone

Reporting bad news is becoming very difficult in China

Britain may be concerned over its freedoms but half way round the world in China there are increased concerns that the country is flouting regulations set out by the International Olympic Committee. Rules set out in the charter say that China must allow the free movement of journalists and allow them to interview anyone who consents. But as tears melt away into anger on the ground in Sichuan province, authorities are taking a hard stance against foreign reporters attempting to cover increased numbers of protests. Many of the protests, initiated by parents who have lost their only child, centre on the the allegation that school buildings were sub-standard in their construction and that corruption had a part to play. Some have organised petitions and attempted to force courts to take on their concerns. But as reporters attempt to cover the story, police and army troops have been accused of violence, destroying journalistic materials, detaining reporters, harassing sources and staff, intercepting communications and denying access to public areas. Shortly after the earthquake many Western journalists descended on the area hit by the magnitude 8.0 tremor and were largely unimpeded. But in the last few weeks foreign correspondents have voiced concerns over heavy handed tactics employed by the police.
On June 5th police barred filming, then detained a three-person crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for three hours after the journalists attempted to report from outside the barricaded grounds of the Juyuan middle school, where many students died in the May 12 earthquake. A journalist, cameraman and local producer were attempting to film outside the school when police, who were blocking access to the school, told them to stop filming and asked for their passports. The group was not carrying their passports and had been unable to get new press credentials issued by Sichuan provincial authorities for the earthquake zone. They were told to wait for a superior officer at the scene, and when they attempted to leave the school after about an hour, were taken to the local police station for questioning. ABC journalist Stephen McDonell said the police rejected their assertions about the new Olympics reporting rules, telling the journalists that those were "legislative rules" from Beijing, but that the Communist Party offices in Chengdu had to issue separate press cards for earthquake areas. The Chengdu office, McDonell said, told ABC that June press cards were not yet available. The team was also warned not to try and enter so-called "traffic control" areas, which, they were told, apply not only to cars but also to unsanctioned parties travelling by foot or other means. After writing a ‘self-criticism’ and promising to follow the rules, the team was released.

The day before, two Dutch reporters from Radio Netherlands were prevented from entering Dujiangyan. Police told the reporters they could not enter the city because “the situation was very fierce.” A reporter and photographer from Kyodo News were also confronted on June 3rd as they were covering a story on parents who were trying to file a lawsuit over the deaths of students at a collapsed school. About ten policemen surrounded the photographer, grabbed him by his arms, and took him into a courthouse. Several minutes later authorities pulled the reporter away from the crowd and took him into the courthouse. A local government official told the journalists they were not under arrest, but were being taken inside the courthouse for their own safety. They were later released. The same day police detained a reporter and photographer from Associated Press and told them not to cover protests by parents who lost children in the May 12 earthquake. Reporter Cara Anna and photographer Ng Han Guan arrived around 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse in Dujiangyan, where parents were protesting shoddy school construction. Police grabbed their arms and pulled them up the stairs of the courthouse. They were taken to the lobby to wait for officials from the local government's Foreign Affairs Office. The official arrived and lectured the journalists not to cover such protests. And at a meeting of bereaved parents police forcibly removed a Christian Science Monitor correspondent and his Chinese assistant. Several riot police, one regular police officer and a man in plain clothes pushed and shoved correspondent Peter Ford and his assistant out of the meeting which took place on June 2nd. They were told it was a “special moment” and had to leave "for their own safety". The reporting team re-entered the meeting 20 minutes later. But soon after police returned and told Ford, “This area is under police control, you must leave immediately.”

There have also been a few reports of journalists being intimidated soon after the earthquake. On May 15th Jonathan Watts of Britain's Guardian newspaper said military personnel working in Niufei Village, Pingwu County,told his reporting team they were not allowed to video the soldiers en-route to a school buried in a landslide. "I told them they should be proud of what they are doing, and they should let the people know," Watts said, "But they confiscated a video tape, deleted some photographs, and told us to leave." In Mianyang the next day, Watts was obstructed by police from entering a refugee camp, although he said domestic journalists appeared to have unfettered access. And two days later, he was held up at a checkpoint near Zipingpu dam by a soldier who claimed he was under orders to prevent foreigners from entering "because spies had infiltrated the area." On other occasions Watts said he received unprecedented cooperation from security personnel, including rides in trucks and on speedboats. "It was a mixture. In a single day you could experience refreshing openness and a feeling of shared humanity. Then, straight after, the same old frustrating restrictions and suspicion of foreigners that was normal in the past," he said. "Overall, my encounters with police and troops were more positive than at any time before. But it seemed to depend on the individual rather than the result of any change of policy."

Nonetheless, it is clear that while China is beginning to open up in a way that would have been unheard of 20 or even 10 years ago, the paranoia existing amongst officials over the reporting of bad news stories still exists. It is clear that while reporting from China is far less difficult than in the past, there is a broad rather than a thin red line that reporters should not cross. Obtaining a J visa, issued only to accredited journalists working for officially recognised companies, is difficult enough. Obtaining permission to travel outside of Beijing is even more difficult. Sometimes journalists working for large organisations take the risk and set off to where the story is. But the news is stifled by the rigorous intervention of the state which continues to prevent free movement of the press [FCC China].

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