“BBC, where are you? We have a friend on the internet messaging us and saying he wants to go filming with you … Everyone, let's help this friend fulfill his wish!”
That was Henan’s Communist Youth League, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated organization, last weekend calling its 1.6 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, to locate BBC reporter Robin Brant and share his whereabouts in the comments section. Brant was covering the deadly flood in Zhengzhou, the capital city of the central Chinese province of Henan.
On July 22, Brant reported in front of the city’s subway station, where 14 passengers died inside a flooded train, that “passengers were left to die on the platform.” That particular phrase, widely described as “smearing” and “demonizing” China, went viral on the internet together with a photograph of Brant. An online furor and death threats against Brant ensued, accompanied by a “BBC spreads rumors” hashtag. About 38,000 related posts hit 120 million views.
A few days after the Youth League’s call to action, Mathias Bolinger, a reporter with Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, was surrounded by an angry group of residents in Zhengzhou. “Don’t smear!” they yelled. “Don’t you leave yet!” He was grabbed and seized by the arm.
They thought they had caught Robin Brant of the BBC.
“Hostility toward the media exists everywhere. What makes this different is the involvement of the Communist Party,” tweeted Josh Chin, The Wall Street Journal's deputy China bureau chief. Chin and his two colleagues from the newspaper’s bureau were expelled from China last year with five days’ notice over an opinion piece with which none of the three was involved.
Disregarding these and other incidents, China falsely claims foreign journalists are free to go as they please.
“The reporting environment for foreign correspondents in China is open and free,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian on July 29. “Communication channels between foreign journalists in China and competent Chinese authorities are open and unfettered.”
Zhao was responding to Bloomberg News’ request for comment on a statement by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) about the harassment of foreign journalists covering the floods in Henan. Bloomberg also noted the involvement of CCP-linked organizations.
The following day, the U.S. State Department expressed deep concern over “the increasingly harsh surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of U.S. and other foreign journalists” covering the Henan flooding.
Even before the floods, the press freedom environment in China had worsened.
The FCCC’s 2020 Annual Report surveyed 150 club members representing news organizations from 30 countries and regions. It reported in March that media freedom “deteriorated significantly.” As the government stepped up coronavirus prevention measures, intimidation, harassment and visa restrictions aimed at foreign media followed.
According to the report, foreign journalists traveling to regions deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, including Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong, among others, often face more intense harassment.
“All 18 respondents who tried to report in Xinjiang, 6 of 8 respondents who tried to report from Tibetan-inhabited areas, such as Sichuan or Gansu, 16 of 19 respondents who tried to report from Inner Mongolia” were restricted or prohibited from reporting, the report said. It stated that they were visibly followed, asked or forced to delete photographs and other information from devices; had interviews monitored or disrupted and were denied hotel rooms; received visa-related threats; were detained and summoned to meetings at the Foreign Ministry and so forth.
Visas were also used to exert pressure. Foreign journalists in China typically receive one-year visas that can be renewed. Yet “at least 13 correspondents received press credentials valid for six months or less, including as short as one month,” according to the report.
Some foreign journalists were denied visa renewals and expelled. The report said at least 18 were forced out in the first half of 2020, including long-term China correspondents of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Chinese nationals working for foreign media also were targeted, “with authorities forcing them into regular interrogations, compelling their resignations, and in the worst cases, throwing them in long-term detention.”
Bloomberg News reported in December that authorities detained Haze Fan, a Chinese citizen who worked for Bloomberg in Beijing, on suspicion of jeopardizing national security.
The FCCC reported that four out of five survey respondents said they had interviews canceled because Chinese sources “needed prior permission to speak to a foreign journalist or because they were not permitted to speak to foreign journalists at all.”
The report cited increasing physical and electronic surveillance online, with nearly nine in 10 respondents saying they were “definitely or possibly surveilled” on China’s WeChat social media platform. “Government officials questioned a colleague about a story we hadn’t published,” explained one of the survey respondents.
Chinese authorities have dubbed foreign news reports as “fake news” while accusing foreign news outlets of fundamental bias against China and part of a wider plot by “Western countries” to “keep China down.”
Zhao said during the July 29 press conference:
“Do you know that the Chinese netizens refer to BBC as ‘Bad-mouthing Broadcasting Corporation’? Having long been clinging to its ideological bias against China, BBC has produced fake news time and again … [and has] attacked and vilified China in serious deviation from the professional ethics of journalism.”
Responding to the objections regarding flood coverage, Zhao alleged the United States is “just using press freedom as a cover to advance its real agenda of suppressing China.”
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying has used similar rhetoric to attack Western media coverage of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. “[A]nti-China forces … unscrupulously pursue rumor-mongering and smearing campaign against China with unfounded pretexts,” Hua said during a March briefing.
Such sentiments trickle down to Chinese citizens.
In a video shared on Twitter, two survivors of the subway flood emotionally described to a Chinese-speaking reporter their experience of escaping death. In it, a male voice popped in, asking the reporter: "[W]hich media outlet do you work for? Are you foreign media?” The survivors immediately stopped talking. They left the scene after a few seconds of silence, with the same male voice saying: “[N]o foreign media. Report the whole story, don’t smear.”
According to the press freedom watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), foreign journalists from The Associated Press and Al Jazeera also were harassed and reported to the police by Zhengzhou residents. Agence France-Presse reported that its reporters were “surrounded by dozens of men” and forced to delete footage while filming a flooded traffic tunnel in Zhengzhou.
The New York Times reported that interviews were halted as the Chinese sources were yelled at on the streets of Zhengzhou.
The “Rights and Responsibilities of Foreign Journalists” section on the official website of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., states that “the legitimate rights and interests of the permanent offices of foreign media organizations and foreign journalists shall be respected and protected” and authorities like the Chinese Information Department and local Foreign Affairs Offices “will facilitate and support news coverage and reporting activities of foreign journalists carried out in accordance with law.”
Sounds good, but the Chinese embassy guidance also opens the door to subjective interpretation and censorship, stating that the “permanent offices of foreign media organizations and foreign journalists shall abide by the laws, regulations and rules of China, observe the professional ethics of journalism, conduct news coverage and reporting activities on an objective and impartial basis.”
Although China’s constitution seemingly guarantees free speech and media freedom, Article 51 also limits those rights in “the interests of the state, society or collectives.”
According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, China ranked 177th out of 180 countries, a ranking that has steadily declined over the past eight years.