The Chinese government is finding new ways to intimidate and bully foreign correspondents, their counterparts in China and their sources by accusing them of “spreading rumours” and “smearing” China, reports Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a report, the CPJ has highlighted how foreign correspondents are usually harassed in China by the Communist Party regime claiming that they spread rumours against China. The CPJ recounts how international journalists were intimidated by the Chinese locals on the instructions of a lower-level organisation of the Communist Party of China.
The report cited the harassment meted out to several international media outlets by citizens on the streets of Zhengzhou for covering severe flooding in the Chinese city in July 2021. The CPJ report suggests that the Henan Communist Youth League, a lower-level official organisation of the CPC, had propped up several citizens to harass journalists on the streets of China for reporting about floods.
Several Chinese nationals had taken to the social media platform Weibo then to post angry posts criticising the BBC’s China Correspondent Robin Brant for questioning government policies after a dozen people died in a train carriage amid the flooding. Over the last few months, many have also received such messages on social media and intimidating calls, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
Instead of condemning such attacks on foreign journalists, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had accused Brant of “distorting the real situation of the Chinese government’s efforts to organise rescues and local people’s courage to save themselves, and insinuating attacks on the Chinese government, full of ideological prejudice against and double standards.”
The threats to foreign correspondents covering last year’s flood are just one example of how tough it is for foreign journalists to report from China. The intimidation, trolling, and physical attacks on journalists have been the latest tool in the Chinese playbook.
China jailed the most number of journalists in the world
According to CPJ’s annual prison census, China has detained the most number of journalists globally. According to the report, there are 274 journalists lodged in prisons across the globe this year as compared to 272 journalists imprisoned in 2016.
China has a history of censoring not just the country’s domestic media space, thanks to state-supervised content delivery, but also the global media by way of harassment and intimidation of foreign correspondents working in the country. However, it is often difficult for China to force the foreign media to toe the establishment’s line. Hence, the Chinese government resorts to intimidation and scare tactics to bully them.
As China is more sensitive to its international image, especially after its grave mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are not taking any risks anymore. The Chinese government are now expelling journalists and sometimes refusing to recognise reporters.
“Going after foreign journalists is part of a broad strategy to control all information, including online voices, which has indeed become more challenging for them on all fronts as the methods of communication increase and diversify,” said Beach, who added that it is also part of their strategy to proactively rewrite the global narrative about China, especially with the COVID story.
As part of their latest new tactic, the Chinese-state run news organisations and tabloids, as well as popular anonymous social media users on Weibo, often leak the identities of foreign journalists who “smear and attack China”, calling their coverage “biased” or “dishonest”.
Media outlets cannot publish reports not approved by the Communist party
According to a CPJ report published last year, the Chinese government had imposed restrictions on free speech and the freedom of media outlets to publish reports not approved by the Communist party. The situation is said to have worsened under the Jinping regime as, in 2016, he had directed the state-owned media outlets to have the party name as their family name.
The CPJ attributed the deteriorated situation of journalists in China working with foreign news outlets to the growing hostility in the relations between China with other major countries. In August this year, an Australian news anchor Cheng Lei was detained in China on suspicion of endangering national security. A journalist, Haze Fan, who was working for Bloomberg in Beijing, was detained last week on similar charges. Chinese officials had declared the case an internal affair of China.
Similarly, when NPR’s Beijing correspondent Emily Feng went to Liuzhou in the Guanxi autonomous region in southern China to report about the Chinese delicacy “luosifen” or snail noodles, she was stopped from writing on what was supposed to be a ‘fun’ story. After the story was published, Feng had to face online harassment as she was called “anti-China foreign citizen of Chinese descent” on Weibo.
In December 2021, the Chinese propaganda outlet Global Times described Chinese-born New York Times visual investigative reporter Muyi Xiao as an example of a journalist who uses Western media to “ambush their comrades and motherland from behind.”
The article attacked Xiao’s work and accused the organisation associated with her of “anti-China” NGOs, accusing Xiao of “lying to her heart” or acting with the ‘zeal of a convert” in her affiliation with them.
Again, in March 2021, the BBC’s Beijing correspondent John Sudworth had t. leave China, where he had been based for nine years, due to the surveillance, obstruction, intimidation, and threats of legal action against him and his team. Sudworth became a target of online propaganda campaigns for reporting on the origins of Covid-19, Xinjiang’s re-education camps, and forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton industry.
During the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, foreign journalists faced further harassment as Washington Post China bureau chief Lily Kuo received severe blowback on Twitter over her story on China’s promotion of previously-mocked mascot Bing Dwen Dwen. The trolling was such to the extent that she was forced to make her tweets temporarily private.
“These kinds of nationalistic attacks against people seen as criticising China have happened for years, against journalists, human rights activists, and others, in different ways,” said Sophie Beach, operations and communications manager at the China Digital Times, a US-based media organisation that archives and translates content censored on China’s internet.
During the inaugural session of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a Chinese official had also assaulted a Dutch reporter Sjoerd den Daas. Daas, a journalist for the Dutch newspaper NOS Nieuws, was doing live coverage for the Winter Games on Friday when a Chinese security guard moved in front of the camera and began to push him away.