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Surveillance, harassment ‘the new normal’ for foreign news organizations in China

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters on June 7, 2016, at the Westin Chaoyang Hotel in Beijing, China, during a news conference following a two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue between U.S. and Chinese officials. (U.S. State Department/Released)
February 04, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Surveillance and official retaliation have become the hallmarks of reporting from China, the foreign correspondents’ club said in a new report.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) found in a recent survey of its members that more than half thought conditions had deteriorated in 2018.

“Survey results painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions inside China in recent memory,” the report, titled “Under Watch,” found.

“Surveillance, both human and digital, became a key concern,” the FCCC said via its Twitter account, adding that 48 of respondents said they were were followed or “were aware that a hotel room was entered without permission.”

In addition, 91 percent were concerned about the security of their phones, while 22 percent were aware authorities tracked them using public surveillance systems.

Overall, 55 percent of respondents said they believed conditions deteriorated in 2018. “Not a single correspondent said conditions improved last year,” the FCCC said.

Conditions were even tougher in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where authorities have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in a vast network of “re-education” camps since April 2017.

“Reporting grew much more difficult in Xinjiang,” it said. “Twenty-four out of 27 respondents who traveled to the region [said] they experienced interference while there, with 19 being asked or forced to delete data,” the FCCC said.

“Many of the journalists who traveled there were visibly followed, physically blocked from areas and pressured to delete the contents of their reporting materials. Some were even denied hotel rooms,” the report said.

Official harassment or retaliation also rendered Chinese nationals working for foreign news organizations vulnerable, the report found, with 37 percent of 91 respondents reporting that their Chinese colleagues were pressured, harassed or intimidated.

“The overall climate continues to deteriorate to the point where we are really worried about the safety of contacts and Chinese-national researchers,” the FCCC quoted Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Tim Mitchell as saying. “It’s by far the worst I’ve seen working as a journalist in China or Hong Kong since 2000.”

Meanwhile, 34 percent said sources had been harassed, detained or called in for questioning at least once.

The authorities also retaliated against foreign journalists through the use of the visa and accreditation system, the FCCC said.

“BuzzFeed News bureau chief Megha Rajagopalan was effectively expelled from China after she was unable to renew her visa,” it said, adding that Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Matthew Carney had been forced to leave China after only receiving a short-term visa.

“Both had done reporting in Xinjiang,” the FCCC said.

Carney told the FCCC survey that he had witnessed files being moved in his laptop and smartphone.

“I have actually seen them in my Gmail opening and closing files,” the report quoted him as saying. “I had a very high level of surveillance in my home and office, on phone, all communications apps: WeChat, Gmail, ABC email, malware in my phone, etc.”

The report cited one bureau chief of a U.S.-based news organization assaying: “On a day-to-day basis, it’s worse now than it has been in the past 20 years … What we’re dealing with now is a new normal.”

FCCC president Hanna Salhberg said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is becoming “more sophisticated” in its use of surveillance to control foreign journalists.

“The wider monitoring and pressure on sources stop journalists even before they can reach the news site,” Sahlberg said.

“There is a risk that even foreign media will shy away from stories that are perceived as too troublesome, or costly, to tell in China,” she said, adding that recent reports of Chinese authorities offering, on behalf of Malaysia, to conduct intense surveillance of Hong Kong-based foreign correspondents was a disturbing development that violated both Hong Kong law and international standards.