Reporters in China warn of ‘unprecedented’ challenges as the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics kickoff nears

As the world’s media gears up to cover the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, press freedom in China is deteriorating at a “breakneck speed,” says a Beijing-based journalist group. 

Foreign journalists in China are facing “unprecedented hurdles” while reporting in and on the country, according to a report released on Monday by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), which surveyed 127 journalists representing news organizations from 30 countries and regions.

State-sponsored intimidation tactics and surveillance against journalists have become commonplace—including online harassment and cyber hacking, and physical assaults and visa denials, the FCCC report says. In March, BBC correspondent John Sudworth—who spent nine years in China—left Beijing for Taiwan after coming under intense government pressure over his investigative reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. 

Chinese authorities have also detained Haze Fan, a Chinese citizen working for Bloomberg, and Cheng Lei, an Australian reporter with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, for more than a year. China is the biggest incarcerator of journalists, according to a December 2021 report by advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the FCCC as an illegal organization operating in the country and criticized the group for its lack of principles.  

Reporting from sensitive regions, particularly Xinjiang in China’s far west—where the government has embarked on a campaign of mass internment of Muslim minorities, according to numerous recent research reports from news outlets, academia, think tanks, and nonprofit groups—has been especially challenging: 88% of the journalists who went to Xinjiang last year said that they were “visibly followed, often by men in plain clothes,” while 34% said they were asked or forced to delete data such as photos and video footage from the region, says the FCCC. 

In recent years, Chinese authorities have also expelled foreign journalists, and denied or prolonged visa approvals for foreign reporters. In March 2020, China expelled American journalists from prominent news organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal after the Trump administration placed limits on the number of Chinese staff allowed to work in the U.S. for Chinese state-run media. Then in November, the U.S. and China both agreed to relax visa restrictions for journalists, but China hasn’t yet granted the visa approvals for American journalists as promised, according to the FCCC.

As a result, coverage of China is “suffering,” says the China-based journalist group. “We’re covering less news now than we have in a very long time,” noted the bureau chief of a major U.S. outlet, to the FCCC. “That’s a pity for readers…trying to understand this country, and for China. When staffing…shrinks to the levels they’re at now, one of the most notable things that gets lost is nuance.” 

China’s stringent COVID-19 pandemic policies—the world’s second-largest economy is one of the only places still maintaining a “zero-COVID” strategy—have been used by authorities to delay journalist visa approvals. The government has also rejected reporting trips, interview requests, and access to certain locations, says the FCCC report.

Journalists covering the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing starting on Feb. 4 are likely to face a range of challenges—from COVID-19 restrictions to digital surveillance, warned the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York–based nonprofit organization, earlier this month.

In Beijing, members of the media will be restricted to reporting from inside the Olympic bubble—a “closed loop” system that requires the press to stay within the designated area: 90% of journalists surveyed by the FCCC said they won’t enter the Olympic zone in order to “maintain mobility and continue reporting.” Still, stringent COVID-related travel restrictions within the country and capital city are making it “even more difficult than usual” for reporters to do their work during this time.

The CPJ also cautioned journalists covering the Olympics to protect the data in their electronics. “Your devices and online activity will be monitored…[and] assume your hotel room is under surveillance,” it said.

China can improve its global standing by ensuring an independent media, concludes the FCCC. The country can “boost confidence in its story not by flooding the world with highly orchestrated state propaganda, but by also letting others tell that story.”  

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