China steps up visa threats against foreign reporters: Media group

Wall Street Journal staff Josh Chin (right) and Philip Wen walk through Beijing Capital Airport before their departure on Feb 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP/REUTERS) - The Chinese government is threatening to remove visas from journalists as a weapon to intimidate foreign media "like never before", a press group said on Monday (March 2), following the expulsion of three reporters last month.

In its annual report, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said it also feared Beijing was preparing to kick out more reporters, with two journalists this year given working visas of only a single month.

At least 12 correspondents received press credentials valid for six months or less - more than double the number given short-term visas the previous year, in what the FCCC called a record.

Resident journalist visas, which are mandatory for all foreign media based in mainland China, are typically issued for one year.

"Chinese authorities are using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before," the report warned, flagging a "continued decline in reporting conditions".

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China has forced out nine foreign journalists, either through outright expulsion or by non-renewal of visas, the FCCC said.

The report also found that 82 per cent of 114 journalists surveyed said they had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting in China over the past year.

Nearly double the correspondents surveyed this year faced difficulty renewing their credentials, and almost all of them believed this was related to their reporting.

In late February, Beijing ordered three reporters from The Wall Street Journal to leave the country over what it deemed a racist headline in an opinion piece they were not involved in writing. The column called China the "real sick man of Asia".

Deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporter Chao Deng, both US nationals, as well as reporter Philip Wen, an Australian, were given five days to leave. The reporters had reported on Xinjiang, covering forced labour, surveillance and re-education camps.

Last August, China refused to renew the press credentials of Wall Street Journal correspondent Chun Han Wong after he and Mr Wen wrote an article on one of Xi's cousins.

The group warned that "hostility toward foreign press is now so pervasive that the most basic elements of journalism are often frustrated in China".

"As China reaches new heights of economic influence, it has shown a growing willingness to use its considerable state power to suppress factual reporting that does not fit with the global image it seeks to present," the report said.

"As scrutiny is intensifying toward China, it is more important than ever for foreign media to have freedom to report and cover the country ... The ability for foreign journalists to be based in China without impediment is crucial for quality international news coverage about the country."

Mr Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said the FCCC report was "inappropriate" and that China does not recognise the organisation.

"There are over 600 foreign journalists stationed in China and they don't need to worry about their reporting in China as long as they observe Chinese laws and regulations," he told a regular media briefing.

Beijing has previously strongly denied accusations the government is limiting press freedoms for foreign reporters. It has also criticised foreign media coverage of issues like the treatment of minority Uygurs in Xinjiang, protests in Hong Kong and China's senior leadership, calling it biased.

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