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China: Harassment of Foreign Correspondents Intensified During Covid-19

Credit: FCCC media freedom report
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Reporters Without Borders

According to a report published on 1st March by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), the regime’s harassment of foreign correspondents has again intensified throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on democracies to increase pressure on the Chinese regime.

In its annual report published on 1st March 2021, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) highlighted the intensification of the regime’s harassment of foreign journalists and their sources throughout the Covid-19 crisis. The report, based on 150 responses to a survey of the club members, specifically denounced an increased use of visa weaponisation which led to the expulsion of at least 18 foreign correspondents in the first half of 2020. 

Some facts from the report:

“In the second half of the year, Chinese state security officers visited the homes of Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles in Beijing and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith in Shanghai.

The officers informed the correspondents that they were barred from leaving China and ordered them to submit to questioning in connection with an alleged national security investigation into Cheng Lei. Cheng, anAustralian journalist for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was detained by the authorities last August.

A diplomatic standoff ensued, with Birtles and Smith sheltering in the Australian embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai, while high-level negotiations took place between Australia and China over five days.

The journalists were finally allowed to depart China after agreeing to be interrogated. Cheng was formally arrested this February 2021 for allegedly supplying state secrets overseas. Chinese authorities have provided almost no information about her case.

Had Birtles and Smith remained in China after being questioned, “it’s unclear whether we would have been locked up or not,” said Smith.“But the fact that the Chinese authorities were willing to put exit bans on two foreign correspondents does show that the old precedents no longer apply,” he said. “Before this happened, we assumed that as foreign correspondents, the worst-case scenario was we would be deported or have our visas revoked.”Involving foreign journalists “in a national security case is unprecedented,” said Birtles.

While the distressing incident occurred as relations deteriorated between Australia and China, it was intimidation presented “as a legitimate investigation involving midnight knocks on the door and taped interrogations.”As a result of this incident, Australian news organizations no longer have any correspondents based in China. The Australian Financial Review has begun planning the establishment of a bureau elsewhere in Asia.”

“On many occasions, correspondents were forced to abandon reporting trips after being told to leave or be quarantined on the spot.Correspondents have also been required to comply with restrictions that did not apply to other people, whether Chinese or foreign, such as testing requirements.“We’re trying to do stories that matter,” said a senior editor at a Western media organization. “At the same time, I would say there’s no story worth getting one of our people locked.”


“In recent years, Chinese regime apparatus has come to consider foreign correspondents as unwanted witnesses and goes to great lengths to prevent them from collecting information that doesn’t mirror its propaganda”, 
says Cédric Alviani, RSF East Asia bureau head. “In this period of the pandemic, transparency can save lives and democracies must increase pressure on the Chinese regime for it to respect their right to access unbiased information.”


In the FCCC report, based on 150 of its members’ survey responses, journalists stated interference from the authorities (60%), intimidation attempts on their Chinese personnel (59%), physical surveillance (40%) and harassment on their sources (40%). Additionally, at least 90% of respondents who traveled last year to the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia experienced obstruction. 


China ranked 177th out of 180 in the 2020 RSF World Press Freedom Index and is the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 121 detained, often in life-threatening conditions.

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