A Bad Omen  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2008

A Bad Omen   

The anti-press upsurge in China following the rioting in Tibet isnt an encouraging sign as to how the news media will be treated during the 2008 Olympics.

By Kathleen E. McLaughlin
Kathleen E. McLaughlin(kemclaughlin@hotmail.com) covers China for the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher of legislative and regulatory news. She also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor.     


Death threats against foreign reporters, government condemnation of international media, increasing political pressure on Chinese sources: This is not the free, open reporting climate the Chinese government promised for the 2008 Olympics.

Yet it is reality in the months leading up to the Summer Games in August, following the March eruption of violent protests in Tibet, the subsequent world outcry over the Chinese government's treatment of Tibetans and the ensuing public relations fiasco that was the global Olympic torch relay. As international criticism of China for human rights abuses grows louder, nationalists and government officials have singled out outsiders for scorn, blaming them for inciting the world's displeasure with China. Joining the French on the hot seat of derision are the international media.

Early in April, after returning from a government-chaperoned reporting trip to the aftermath of demonstrations in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, Associated Press Beijing Bureau Chief Charles Hutzler started getting harassing calls on his mobile phone. For five or six days, 20 to 30 calls rolled in every hour (except during lunch and dinner and late at night), with a nearly equal number of text messages. Most passed on petty insults and patriotic curses; some threatened to kill him. Though he stopped answering his cell phone and switched to a backup line, Hutzler says the several callers he did talk to shared one thing: They hadn't read anything he had written.

At least 10 foreign journalists working in China have been the target of death threats since March, according to Melinda Liu, a Newsweek journalist and president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. No arrests have been made.

Liu noted the tense atmosphere for foreign journalists in China and urged officials to take security concerns and their promises to improve reporting conditions seriously. "These developments have cast a pall over the pre-Games atmosphere for foreign correspondents," she says. "I hope authorities will realize it's in their interest to investigate death threats against foreign media, because such threats violate Chinese laws. It's appalling that Chinese citizens can get away with threatening to kill foreigners. What kind of message does that send to the world, with the Olympics little more than [weeks] away?" The tidal wave of anti-international-media sentiment is not a huge surprise to foreign journalists who live and work here; they're well aware that public opinion is fickle and often shaped by government control of information. The international media have always been somewhat scorned for criticizing China, but they were generally seen as fair. Now, journalism professors here say, many residents feel the Western press is as bad as or worse than the Chinese media. No outlet has been more vilified than CNN. The network was initially targeted for cropping a photo of the Lhasa riots, its detractors arguing that angry rioters were cut out of the frame of a man running in front of a military truck to make it seem as though the army rather than Tibetan protesters was causing the chaos. CNN later published the original photo, but the criticism flowed unchecked.

Front-page condemnations from official media followed, as the Web site www.anti-cnn.com claimed tens of thousands of page views every day. Following CNN commentator Jack Cafferty's dismissive remarks about the Chinese as "goons and thugs" in early April, the anti-CNN fervor shot upward. Government officials demanded an apology from the network. Cafferty later explained he was referring to the Chinese government, not the people. Still, 14 Chinese lawyers have filed suit against the commentator in China, while two other plaintiffs sued Cafferty and the network in the United States.

CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime FlorCruz illustrates the contradictions of China's stance toward the Western media. FlorCruz first came to China as a Filipino student political activist in 1971. During FlorCruz's trip, then-Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos suspended habeas corpus rights and later imposed martial law. FlorCruz, blacklisted and unable to return to his home country, remained under the nominal protection of the Chinese government for 12 years without a passport. FlorCruz has spent almost two-thirds of his life in China, learning its history, language and customs, and reporting on them, for many years for Time magazine. He and his daughter were a finalist team in China Daily's contest for foreign nationals to carry the Olympic torch in China. Now his employer, even though its broadcasts are unavailable to most Chinese, has been demonized as a major anti-China force.

While FlorCruz and many other journalists aren't discussing their personal experiences, they will talk about their concerns leading up to the Games: How will China react in the face of an estimated 20,000 foreign journalists coming to cover the Olympics, which begin on August 8? Given the heightened tensions, will those journalists confront problems unanticipated even a few months ago? Will China's government live up to its promise to provide a free, open and safe reporting climate for journalists who come here for the Games? And how will foreign journalists, many of whom have never before been to China, handle the complex system, particularly when working on sensitive stories?

"We need to make everyone aware of where China is coming from," FlorCruz says. "We must encourage China's positive effort to change, and China must keep changing to live up to international norms and practices."

Other reporters with long tenures in China note that the country and its press freedoms have progressed in recent years, even though they may still be below par. "I do think that China and the Chinese government have come a long way in the past decade, though maybe not as far as many of us had hoped," says Mary Kay Magistad, Beijing-based correspondent for Public Radio International's "The World." It's been nearly a decade since the government kicked out a foreign journalist, she notes, and most government departments now at least entertain the possibility of granting interviews. These might sound like small items, but for China they represent major changes from a decade ago.

Of course, none of the troubling questions about journalism during China's Olympics is new. Yet skepticism over the country's commitment to its fledgling free and open reporting rules is at a high point, and worst-case scenarios for international journalists during the Olympics seem increasingly probable. The anti-foreign-media public sentiment has only added fuel to that fire.

Jocelyn Ford, a longtime Asia journalist and chairwoman of the media freedoms committee for the Foreign Correspondents Club, says there have been 230 cases of reporting interference brought to the club's attention since January of 2007, when the Foreign Ministry enacted new rules allowing foreign reporters to travel and report throughout the country without official permission from local officials.

Despite the new rules, scores of reporters have been detained, harassed and, in a few cases, beaten by local police since the start of 2007. The pressure has been particularly intense in Tibetan parts of China, where journalists have reported more than 50 cases of reporting interference since the blowup in mid-March, Ford says. In addition, human-rights groups have documented increasing political pressure on sources and government critics.

Ford says there have been incremental improvements in China's press openness. Still, she adds, "It's not the gold standard of an Olympic host."

For its part, the Chinese government says it remains committed to protecting foreign citizens and reporters in China.

The government "will continue to protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign journalists in China according to law," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a news conference. "Meanwhile, we hope foreign journalists will abide by Chinese laws and regulations and display the objectiveness, justness and balance that they always acclaim so as to build up trust with the Chinese people."

Yet the troubling situation prompted a visit from executives with the International Federation of Journalists, who met with Chinese officials about "violations of promises to let the media work without interference." After the mid-April meetings, IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said in a statement: "We are impressed by a new willingness to talk through our differences over press freedom and journalism, but the problems facing reporters on the ground cannot be ignored."

The frenzy against the Western media was calming down by the end of April. Underscoring a certain unpredictability in the government's handling of foreign journalists, reporters were allowed unfettered access to areas affected by the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan province on May 12, killing tens of thousands. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said although travel was difficult, officials were instructed to help journalists gather information and interviews as needed.

Sportswriter Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today and broadcast commentator, is one of those 20,000 journalists coming to Beijing for the Games. Though this will be her 13th Olympics, Brennan says she expects a unique experience.

Given increasing political turmoil and public outcry over Beijing's hosting of the Games and the failure of the International Olympic Committee to defuse tensions beforehand, Brennan says she is prepared for the possibility that she might not write much about sports in Beijing. China's unprecedented role as host and its position as a global lightning rod will likely draw protests and political action that could be a much bigger international story than the sporting events.

Brennan says the recent death threats against journalists are cause for concern, but the story of the Beijing Games will nevertheless bring her here. "This story is too important. I'm still very excited to be coming to Beijing to cover the Olympics," Brennan says. "Will there be challenges? Certainly. There were great security concerns in Athens just four years ago. But I cover the Olympics, so I'll be there."

Veteran China correspondents advise visiting reporters to study before they arrive and to be prepared for delays, not to say chaos. Most say it's important to remember that Chinese people are not all of a single mind.

"China is not a monolith, and things can change quickly," Liu says. "Be prepared for a reality much different than what you imagined no matter what it is that you imagined, good or bad."

Kathleen E. McLaughlin (kemclaughlin@hotmail.com) covers China for the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher of legislative and regulatory news. Her last Letter from China appeared in AJR's December 2006/January 2007 issue.

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