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China: New Restrictions Target Media

March 20, 2009

Government Curbs Local News Assistants, Threatens ‘Blacklist’
Human Rights Watch
March 18, 2009

New York - New Chinese government restrictions on
news assistants of foreign correspondents and the
creation of a Chinese journalist "blacklist" are
major setbacks for media freedom in China, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 13, 2009, the government issued a
code of conduct for the Chinese news assistants
of foreign correspondents that threatens
dismissal and loss of accreditation for engaging
in "independent reporting." The same day, the
government announced it would create a
"blacklist" of Chinese journalists deemed to have
engaged in "illegal reporting."

"After taking some steps forward on media freedom
in 2008, the Chinese government is now stepping
backwards," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy
director at Human Rights Watch. "Granting greater
freedom to foreign correspondents and then
increasing the constraints on their crucial
Chinese assistants can't be considered progress."

Human Rights Watch said that the Chinese
government's actions cast fresh doubt on its
claims that the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
resulted in greater development of human rights
in China, particularly media freedom. At the
United Nations Universal Periodic Review of
China's human rights record in Geneva in February
2009, several countries raised concerns about
abuses of Chinese and foreign journalists in
China; government officials denied the existence
of such abuses and noted that China's
constitution "explicitly provides that citizens
enjoy freedom of speech and of the press."

Chinese law forbids its citizens to work as
journalists for foreign media in China. However,
foreign correspondents in China, particularly
those at China-based international news wire
services, rely on local news assistants for their
language skills and their ability to gather
information quickly and efficiently.
Representatives of wire services told Human
Rights Watch that strict interpretation and
enforcement of the code of conduct could harm
their newsgathering operations in China.

On February 13, 2009, the Beijing Personnel
Service Corporation for Diplomatic Missions, the
government body that oversees the employment of
news assistants, issued a new "Code of Conduct"
for the dozens of local news assistants who work
for foreign correspondents. Government officials
said that the new code is a part of an effort to
boost the professionalization and standardization
of the employment of news assistants by foreign media.

The Code of Conduct states that news assistants
face possible dismissal, loss of contracts, and
revocation of accreditation if they undertake any
"independent reporting" for their employers.
Foreign correspondents told Human Rights Watch
that the Chinese government has not provided any
clarification on its criteria for "independent
reporting," including functions often performed
by news assistants. Additionally, the Code of
Conduct requires news assistants to "limit
themselves to assisting with reporting" and to
"propagate positive information and ideas ...
[about] China's history, culture and reforms."

The independent Foreign Correspondents Club of
China (FCCC) announced on March 4 that the Code
of Conduct had already begun to impair the
ability of news assistants to engage with Chinese
government agencies. The FCCC attributed the Code
of Conduct's prohibition on news assistants'
"independent reporting" to a decision by the
organizers of this year's annual meeting of the
National People's Congress, China's parliament,
to refuse interview requests from news
assistants. In recent years, prior to the
introduction of the code, the organizers
routinely accepted such requests
(http://www.fccchina.org/what/statement060309.html ).

Chinese news assistants of foreign correspondents
have good reason to fear official reprisals for
the work they do. Zhao Yan, a researcher for the
New York Times in Beijing, served a three-year
prison sentence ending in September 2007 after
being convicted of fraud in a case that was
marred by multiple violations of due process and
concerns that his conviction was politically
motivated. Human Rights Watch has documented
other instances of Chinese news assistants who
have become the focus of Public Security Bureau
scrutiny in apparent response to their coverage
of issues ranging from high-profile dissidents to
developments in China's economy
(http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2007/08/06/you-will-be-harassed-and-detained-0
).

In October 2008, the Chinese government agreed to
make permanent Olympics-related reporting
freedoms for foreign correspondents. For the
first time, foreign correspondents were permitted
to interview any consenting interviewee without
official permission, suggesting that the Chinese
government was moving toward greater openness.
Yet the new Code of Conduct appears to represent
a reversal by penalizing Chinese assistants for
performing their professional duties.

"Rather than threatening news assistants with
punishment for merely doing their jobs, the
Chinese government should abolish the
discriminatory prohibition on Chinese citizens
working as full-fledged journalists for foreign
media organizations," Richardson said.
"Otherwise, this Code of Conduct looks chiefly
like a tool to control what information Chinese
sources can - and can't - give to the foreign media."

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern with
the announcement, issued the same day as the new
Code of Conduct, from Li Dongdong, deputy
director of China's General Administration of
Press and Publication, that the government would
compile a "blacklist" (Chinese: ???) of Chinese
journalists deemed to have engaged in "illegal
reporting." Li said that journalists placed on
the blacklist would be subject to penalties
including a revocation of their accreditation and
restrictions on their employment in the media industry.

False news reports and individuals who
impersonate journalists are a legitimate,
widespread problem in China. Relatively low-paid
Chinese journalists are often bribed to cover
particular stories, a practice that now prompts
non-credentialed individuals to falsely claim to
be journalists in order to receive those same
financial benefits. Inadequate training in
journalistic ethics and a national media that has
traditionally served as a tool of the Chinese
Communist Party rather than a purveyor of
objective news and analysis have fostered an
institutional culture for the production of false news reports.

Li did not specify the government's definition of
"illegal reporting" or articulate a process by
which such allegations could be appealed. As a
result, Chinese journalists, who are already
subject to an arsenal of vaguely worded and
arbitrarily invoked laws such as those against
"spreading rumors," are now at even greater risk
of official reprisals if they carry out
independent reporting on subjects the government deems sensitive.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the
Chinese government's announcement on February 6,
2009, that Hong Kong and Macau reporters must
apply to central government liaison offices for a
temporary press card prior to every reporting
trip they make to mainland China. Under
Olympics-related temporary regulations,
journalists from Hong Kong and Macau enjoyed the
same freedoms as other foreign journalists; the
recent announcement constitutes a return to the
pre-Olympics constraints on reporters from these
areas even though they are citizens of the
People's Republic of China. The Hong Kong
Journalists Association has expressed concern
about the impact of the new reporting permit
system on media freedom and on Hong Kong and
Macau media's ability to respond quickly to
breaking news stories on the mainland
(http://www.hkja.org.hk/portal/Site.aspx?id=A1-765&lang=en-US ).

"The government's new rules to restrict who can
report - and how - are clearly at odds with the
media freedoms trumpeted by government officials
and guaranteed in China's constitution,"
Richardson said. "These restrictions should be immediately reversed."
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