Report: China Using Coronavirus to ‘Control Journalists’

Police attempt to stop journalists from recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, where Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan - who reported on Wuhan's Covid-19 outbreak and placed under detention since May - is set for trial in Shanghai on December 28, 2020. (Photo by Leo RAMIREZ …
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), a professional association for journalists from over 40 nations working in Beijing, released a report Monday that said the Chinese government is using the coronavirus pandemic as “yet another way to control journalists.”

“As China’s propaganda machine struggled to regain control of the narrative around this public health disaster, foreign press outlets were repeatedly obstructed in their attempts to cover the pandemic,” the FCCC said.

“All arms of state power — including surveillance systems introduced to curb coronavirus — were used to harass and intimidate journalists, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press sought to interview,” the report found.

The FCCC’s annual report said the Chinese government used coronavirus emergency measures to interfere with coverage, thwart investigations, keep reporters under surveillance, and threaten key interview subjects into refusing interviews. Journalists have faced intimidating investigations and detentions.

Foreign news outlets have been the subject of Chinese state media disinformation campaigns, including false “exposes” claiming foreign news networks are using paid actors in place of authentic interview subjects. 

The FCCC found China’s treatment of foreign journalists was particularly oppressive in Wuhan, the city at the center of the global pandemic, and Xinjiang, the province whose Muslim residents Chinese officials have herded into concentration camps.

The year 2020 saw “the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago,” according to the report. Many reporters said they were issued exceptionally brief press certifications this year, putting them on notice that they could be expelled from China at any time.

“Since September 2020, Chinese authorities have refused to issue new press cards to correspondents accredited with US news organizations. Instead, journalists have been handed letters and granted residence permits of two to three months at a time,” the FCCC said. “Those left in this limbo without formal press credentials include journalists from Italy, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin disputed the report’s findings, and the legitimacy of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, during his press conference Monday.

“We have never acknowledged this organization you mentioned,” Wang said in response to a question about the FCCC.

“The so-called ‘report’ is based on preconceptions rather than facts in an attempt to sensationalize and scare,” he continued. “I’d like to stress that China is a country governed by law. Anyone in China must abide by Chinese laws.”

“We welcome media and journalists from different countries working in China in accordance with laws and regulations, and will continue to provide them with convenience and assistance,”  Wang said. “That being said, we reject ideological bias against China, fake news fabricated in the name of freedom of the press, and acts that violate professional ethics of journalism.”

The FCCC said the “rapid decline” of press freedom in China was especially troubling because Beijing is scheduled to host the Winter Olympics in 2022.

“The FCCC is extremely disappointed to note this rapid decline in media freedom in China, and more broadly, freedom of speech, in direct contrast to long-standing Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship,” the press association said.

Authoritarian China consistently ranks near the bottom in worldwide press freedom. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked it 177th out of 180 countries surveyed in 2020, ahead of only Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea.

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