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Harassment of journalists in China: reporters covering 19th Party Congress prevented from conducting interviews

Here are the latest reports of harassment against journalists covering events in China, courtesy of our colleagues at the FCC China.

INCIDENT REPORT – submitted October 2017

Jeremy Koh. Photo: Channel News Asia Jeremy Koh. Photo: Channel News Asia

by Jeremy Koh, Channel News Asia

I was in Tonghua speaking with an elderly man in a park when suddenly a few men started surrounding us. Sensing that things were not quite right, the old man left the place first. When I tried to leave, I was stopped by propaganda officials. Shortly after, police came and asked me to go to a police station. There, I was detained for about five hours as they repeatedly asked me what I was doing in town. Finally, they made me sign a statement saying that I spoke with the old man. I was then picked up by the propaganda officials who sent me back to the hotel.

The next morning, when I went down to the lobby at 7am, the propaganda folks were waiting for me, so there was no way I could conduct any other interviews.

I’ve been followed by authorities on several occasions throughout China over the last few months. Was followed by authorities near the North Korean border in Changbai and Ji’an; in Liangjiahe where Xi spent 7 years; in Northeastern China when I tried to speak to retrenched workers, etc. In some places, I was told I was not allowed to conduct interviews in their region without prior permission from the propaganda office.

INCIDENT REPORT – submitted October 2017

From a western media organisation

After the 19th party congress opening, where we had been told by delegates that the “ordinary people” loved Xi Jinping, we wanted to try to consult some of the ordinary people. We went to a nearby shopping district (Xidan) to try to film some street scenes and speak to passers-by, but were immediately stopped by black-uniformed Teqin security guards.

We explained that we were covering the congress, showing both 19th congress accreditation and journalist cards, and were allowed to film from the public street, and speak to anyone who agreed to speak to us, but they told us we were not allowed, claiming the whole Xidan district is under special administrative order (because it is such an important area) and we must apply for permission from their headquarters before we can film anywhere in the district.

There was no violence, but they covered our lens and ordered us to stop.  We argued the case for a while, and were eventually allowed to film a few minutes of footage, but under no circumstances to speak to anyone.  After a few minutes we left and tried again further away, again on a public street.  As we were vox-popping people another security guard approached us, photographed us and the women we were speaking to on his phone, and told them and us to go.

INCIDENT REPORT – submitted July 2017

From a western media organisation

We travelled to Shenyang early on Friday 14th July to cover the death of Liu Xiaobo. As we approached the hospital, we were initially stopped and gestured to move away by two plain clothes men, while another filmed us on a mobile phone.  We kept walking, past another guy also filming us, and then sending photos or video of us by wechat. Closer to the hospital entrance, we were surrounded by at least five men, all in plainclothes, several with earpieces plainly visible.  They put hands over our lenses and shouted at us. Nothing too physical, just close quarters intimidation, shouting and gesturing. We identified ourselves as accredited journalists, showing the blue cards, which were on lanyards around our necks, and explaining we were allowed to film on the street outside the hospital.  A number of others were filming us, and appeared to be sending voice messages via wechat.  We tried to move away from them, but they repositioned around us several times.

…another plain clothes man circled him and kept close watch in the restaurant where he was sitting…

One of our colleagues had stayed on the far side of the road to keep an eye on what was happening – another plain clothes man circled him and kept close watch in the restaurant where he was sitting.

After a while of showing our press cards and explaining calmly that we were entitled to be there, they did back off to an extent and we were able to film for a few minutes, but then another man, also in plain clothes came and flashed his police badge at us, identifying himself as ‘policeman of china’ and demanding to see and photograph our passports, visas, and press cards, which we kept hold of while he did so.  He moved away and we continued filming, and trying to speak to people, but the security guys were still close by so it was very difficult to speak to anyone, and people were clearly reluctant to talk.

We moved back across the road to do a live broadcast, which we did with another apparently plain clothes security guy sitting a couple of metres from us.

Once we had moved away from the hospital area we had no further problems.  When we checked into our hotel there was a young guy of similar profile to the normal security types, who arrived at the same time as us, and sat beside the check-in desk, so likely he was also surveillance, but impossible to say with certainty.

Wechat messages between two of our team that mentioned Liu Xiaobo never arrived.  We tested this a few times after realising what was happening, and found that two of us could send and receive messages mentioning Liu Xiaobo, but the other two couldn’t.

We also had great difficulty getting anyone to speak to us on record about Liu Xiaobo.  A number of people just didn’t reply to messages or pick up the phone, and one told us he had been visited three times already by state security services and could not accept our interview.

INCIDENT REPORT – submitted July 2017

From a western media organisation

After the death of Liu Xiaobo and the disappearance of his widow, Liu Xia, we went to the Beijing compound where she had been living in late July.  There was a barrier to stop cars going in, but no barrier on pedestrian gate so we walked in on foot.  Within ten metres we were stopped by security guards.  One man got in front of me and repeatedly shoved me with his arm against my chest, while radioing his colleagues.  We explained that we were accredited journalists, not causing any trouble, and trying to go to the address of Liu Xia.  Several more men (all wearing black private security uniform) surrounded us, all yelling, putting hands over our camera lens, and pushing me and the cameraman around.  One man grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me hard.

He grabbed my hand so hard, his nail broke the skin on my hand and left a bleeding thumbnail imprint

By this stage we were retreating back out of the compound onto the main road, but attempting to take some last shots from there.  Another man in black t-shirt appeared, apparently even more angrily and tried to grab the small camera I was filming with.

He grabbed my hand so hard, his nail broke the skin on my hand and left a bleeding thumbnail imprint (this was on the public street, not inside the compound).  They continued aggressively jostling and threatening our team until we got back into the car, where one man lunged at the window as we drove away.

As we pulled out we realised a police car was following directly behind, so began trying to secure our footage.  We were followed until we left the area, and drove around for a while before returning to try another entrance to the compound.  This time there were a mixture of plain clothes security personnel (with earpieces), two uniformed officers, and a couple of private security guards.  It was less physical, but they put hands over our lenses, photographed our IDs, and told us to leave, despite being in a public park, and not inside the residential compound.

The residential compound issue is tricky – technically the police and private security say we are in the wrong because we do not have permission from the resident to be filmed, so we do not have permission to be inside the compound, but if the person is under house arrest and being held incommunicado, it is impossible to reach them to gain permission.  This seems to be exploited by security services.

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FCC supports FCC China’s calls for end to intimidation of journalists reporting Liu Xiaobo’s death

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, supports this statement from our colleagues at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

The FCCC is concerned by reports that foreign journalists in Shenyang covering the death of Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, have been harassed and intimidated by plainclothes security officers.

Reporters “were escorted everywhere by plainclothes men, who shamelessly followed them into restaurants and even bathrooms,” according to one report.

Another journalist said: “I entered the hotel lobby to catch a taxi. Four plainclothes state security officers, all men and wearing black, were already waiting. They asked me where I was going as well as where my friend, a photojournalist, was going. I ignored them. Shortly after I showed up at a nearby press conference hastily convened about Liu Xiaobo, the same men were already waiting in the hotel lobby. They stayed there for the rest of the day, glancing over at us periodically, about 15 feet away. They would follow us as we went to the bathroom or make calls outside.”

Further details described in the Tweets below have caused us concern.

The FCCC calls on the Chinese government to take steps to prevent foreign reporters from being subjected to such intimidation.

He died a hero. A democratic one: Ilaria Maria Sala’s poignant tribute to Liu Xiaobo

Activist Liu Xiaobo died on July 13, 2017. Activist Liu Xiaobo died on July 13, 2017.

I have never seen Liu Xiaobo as much as in the past few days. His picture comes up every other tweet. He’s all over my social media, in the newspapers and magazines. On TV.  Among all the sudden snapshots, I look for those of the one I knew. The ones before the last jail term, and before we all saw him in that striped pyjama.

It is unexpected: to see someone I had badly wanted to see again, except that now there is no hope left. Now, after the hastily arranged “sea burial” to prevent even a tear on his grave, the only thing we can do is offer flowers to the ocean.

As I parse through the pictures I look for his smile, hoping to find the right angle, the one I remember. I have no pictures of Liu Xiaobo: our friendship was before smartphones and selfies, and I am weary that these other pictures, of the last days, may come in canceling my own memories.

We met often at the coffee shop of a hotel near the old CCTV tower, in Western Beijing – not too far from the Military Museum.

I had heard him give a lecture at university, but we became friends after I read a short, serious but humouristic piece he had written for the Hong Kong magazine Cheng Ming. It was an autobiographical essay about smoking his first cigarette at age ten, as an act of rebellion during the Cultural Revolution. The story – how he had stolen the cigarettes from his father  (a rebellion against the patriarchal family structure) and smoked at school (a rebellion against the reactionary education system) and got punished for it, was his own way of “coming clean.”

It was expressed in a fun way, but it wasn’t a joke: Liu Xiaobo couldn’t tolerate the endless blame-shifting of China’s post-Cultural Revolution literature. “We must tell the truth”, he would say serious, smoking, stammering: “about ourselves, about what we did. Why does everyone only talk about their own suffering? How come China pretends to be a country of victims, and never of perpetrators?” he asked. His description of that small-time theft was his way of admitting the truth – but he was also hoping to provoke, and make more people think about the boiler plate stories they were churning out. He didn’t succeed.

We kept meeting, after that, and I kept being struck by how no gesture was too small for him to reflect on its political significance. Once, as we were sipping coffee and talking about the role of dissidence, I said to him: “I don’t like heroes.” “Why not?” he asked. “Because they often become autocratic and anti-democratic.” He nodded, while taking a long drag from his cigarette – at the time, smoking indoors was allowed everywhere in Beijing. I thought of this conversation as I watched horrified as he died of neglected cancer, and as the authorities decided for his remains to be scattered in the sea.

He died a hero. A democratic one.

Ilaria Maria Sala is a former FCC Hong Kong president, and writes for The Guardian, ChinaFile, and Quartz

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