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Foreign journalists in China subject to rising intimidation, survey finds

This article is more than 6 months old

Report says heightened dangers have prompted at least six to leave and many others to develop emergency exit plans

The former BBC correspondent John Sudworth, left, pictured interviewing Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January 2020
The former BBC correspondent John Sudworth, left, interviewing Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January 2020. Sudworth left China in March last year. Photograph: Taiwan presidential office handout/EPA
The former BBC correspondent John Sudworth, left, interviewing Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January 2020. Sudworth left China in March last year. Photograph: Taiwan presidential office handout/EPA

The Chinese government is finding new ways to intimidate foreign journalists, their Chinese colleagues and their sources, and harassment has reached such a high level that at least six have left the country, according to a key report.

The methods include online trolling, physical assaults, hacking and visa denials, as well as what appears to be official encouragement of lawsuits or threats of legal action against journalists, “typically filed by sources long after they have explicitly agreed to be interviewed”.

The report, compiled by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), said: “The FCCC highlights this development with alarm, as foreigners involved in civil or criminal lawsuits and court proceedings in China can be banned from leaving the country, based on past precedent.”

Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has grown increasingly authoritarian, with worsening crackdowns on press freedom and harassment of foreign media and their staff. Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist for the state broadcaster China Global Television Network, and Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist for Bloomberg, remain in jail after more than a year.

In the report, published on Monday, the FCCC compiled the results of its annual member survey. It found high rates of reported incidents of harassment and intimidation, and said the heightened dangers had prompted many foreign journalists and outlets to develop emergency exit plans.

The former BBC correspondent John Sudworth was forced to leave China with his wife, Yvonne Murray, who is a foreign correspondent for RTÉ, and their children after significant harassment and intimidation, and threats of legal action over his investigative reporting.

“As we made our hasty exit, the plainclothes police tailing us and our young children to the airport were final proof of the dangers we faced and of China’s deep intolerance for independent journalism,” he said.

The FCCC said at least eight other foreign correspondents had been threatened with legal action or sued by government entities or sources, “detract[ing] from their time reporting and plunging them into great personal risk”.

The FCCC found that 62% of respondents reported being obstructed at least once by police or other officials, and 47% by unidentified individuals. It said 12% were “manhandled or subjected to other forms of physical force” while reporting.

During the floods in Henan province last summer, several western journalists were physically confronted by people angry at their attempts to report on the disaster and investigate official cover-ups that were later confirmed by China’s central government.

Almost a quarter of respondents said they were targeted for their reporting in online smear campaigns, with trolling disproportionately targeting female journalists of east Asian descent, and the Chinese employees of foreign outlets, including sexual innuendo and “alarming threats of physical violence”.

“After a state-linked blog published numerous exposés criticising my reporting from a half year ago as ‘illegal’, hundreds of Chinese social media accounts began posting my picture along with comments like ‘beat her to death’ and describing sexual acts,” said the National Public Radio correspondent Emily Feng.

The attacks were sometimes directly encouraged or instigated by the state or state-backed entities, the report said, while government officials and ambassadors regularly wrote public diatribes against western reporters.

The FCCC said the attacks demonstrated an “emboldened Chinese government willing to go to great lengths to discredit foreign journalists and their work”. However, it noted that “none of this has stopped foreign journalists from doing their job, nor major global news organisations from going after the stories that matter”.

Many outlets have had to find ways to report from outside China, with dozens of journalists still barred after their expulsion in 2020 and 2021, which was the “single biggest blow to international reporting in China”, said Steven Lee Myers, the New York Times’s expelled Beijing bureau chief, who is now based in Seoul.

Jonathan Cheng, the Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, said: “It has tested our resourcefulness, and there are some things we simply are unable to do from afar, much of it related to bringing our readers outside [of] China’s biggest cities.”

China reporters are now based in Taipei, Singapore, Sydney and London, covering the country remotely or awaiting visa approvals. Late last year, China and the US agreed to ease visa restrictions on journalists from each other’s countries but few have been processed. In the FCCC survey, 46% of respondents said their China bureaux were understaffed because they had not been able to bring in enough journalists.

The survey also found that Chinese authorities and officials were still using Covid-19 measures and border restrictions to delay visa approvals, stifle reporting trips, deny access to some locations and decline interview requests. More than half of respondents said they had been told to leave a place or had been denied access for health and safety reasons even though they presented no risk. Hong Kong’s stringent border rules had also added to pressure on foreign journalists already reporting increased difficulty under the national security law and crackdown on the press.