On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi chastised a Canadian journalist for her “prejudice” and “arrogance” after the iPolitics reporter, Amanda Connolly, posed a question regarding China’s human rights record — not to Wang but to the Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion.
Wang interrupted with an angry tirade following Connolly’s query referencing both detained Canadian, Kevin Garratt, who is being tried for espionage in China, and China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
“Please don’t ask questions in such an irresponsible manner,” said Wang, who appeared visibly upset at the press conference in Ottawa. China is often defensive about its human rights record, but generally responds with bland, scripted statements about adhering to accepted norms and internal laws. Not so this time for the foreign minister.
The encounter, which received global attention, is emblematic of the issue of press freedoms in China, where top authorities are not used to answering tough, direct questions from journalists. Most press conferences are tightly scripted and public appearances by the nation’s most powerful leaders and infrequent.
In China’s heavily-monitored and censored media industry, the commercial media is “mainly a business rather than a public institution carrying out a moral mission,” Liu, Jianqiang, former editor of the independent environmental site chinadialogue, wrote in an op-ed last week.
“China’s news industry has seen huge changes in the past several years, and even the most optimistic of observers admit these have not been for the better,” said Liu.
Freedom House, an international NGO which is dedicated to the expansion of democracy around the world, describes China’s press freedom and online freedom as “not free” and ranks China at 176th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.
Journalists, writers, and bloggers who challenge or call into question the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, its ideology, policies, or leadership, face state-sanctioned reprisals.
“China is not upholding the international norms: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of opinion, the free flow of information,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international NGO.
Recently, several high-profile cases of house arrests, detentions, and disappearances have drawn headlines outside of China’s restricted media market.
On May 23, an elderly writer, Huang Zerong—well-known by his pen name of Tie Liu—disappeared mysteriously. Authorities did not inform his family of the 82-year-old’s whereabouts or condition, but he is believed to be in police custody. His wife and friends think he is being detained for his online criticism of restrictions on press freedoms under Liu Yunshan, Beijing’s propaganda chief. His social media account on WeChat has been deleted, according to CPJ
In April, Human Rights Watch reported that China is systematically denying healthcare to a gravely-ill 72-year old journalist, Gao Yu, who is serving the remainder of her seven-year prison term at home on medical leave. She was imprisoned after allegedly leaking a CCP document revealing government directives to counter Western, liberal ideas (including, ironically, freedom of the press). According to the report, authorities destroyed portions of Gao’s home and refused her medical treatment for a number of serious health conditions, as well as denying her permission to travel abroad for medical care.
Also in April, Wang Jing, a volunteer journalist for the independent 64 Tianwang was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by allegedly publishing stories “defaming” governmental agencies.
These are not isolated incidents; China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Globally, a quarter of all journalists behind bars are being detained in China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist’s most recent prison census released in December 2015.
“Many good journalists have left the industry and as quality investigative journalism departments have been closed down, and the number of exposés has dwindled,” said Liu.
In an environment where many newsrooms and websites are unable or unwilling to field investigative teams, many outlets rely increasingly on independent journalists for rigorous and truthful reporting. Independent journalists are not credentialed nor are they protected by existing laws under which journalists must reapply annually for press passes through their news agencies.
According to Ip Iam Chong in an article in Global Voices, “the bureaucratic structure makes certain that responsibility is shared at all levels — editors and management staff work to ensure that news coverage will not break local laws or offend state or party officials.” The effect is to minimize the risks that credentialed journalists must shoulder, while excluding those outside the state-sanctioned media system.
The Chinese government’s repressive scope is not limited to journalists within its borders, as Connolly discovered. In March, the parents and brother of a Chinese journalist and freedom of speech advocate residing in the United States, Wen Yunchao, were detained and have yet to be released following his retweeting of an open letter calling for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
Last Thursday, China was among a number of countries in the UN which moved to block the official accreditation of the Committee to Protect Journalists. China was joined by Russia, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, and Venezuela in rejecting the non-profit group’s bid. Major media outlets from around the world covered the story, rare for a UN subcommittee’s decision but telling of the seriousness of the issue to the global news media.
“We’re apolitical. This case highlights the hypocrisy of this so-called ‘NGO committee’ that is made up of some of the worst abusers of human rights in the world, including some of the leading jailers of journalists,” said Radsch of CPJ.
The veto from China is “an expression of a policy that’s happening inside China,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
In recent months, China has been cracking down on foreign reporters within its borders as well. In December 2015, French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who wrote about the Chinese repression of the Uyghur minority group, was ejected from China. Other journalists from abroad have been denied visas and face restricted access to sources, among other challenges.
Recently, China has been especially sensitive regarding journalists covering what it deems security threats, particularly relating to events in the politically fractious provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet.
“Anything can be related to ‘security’. Counterterrorism is mostly used [as a pretext to disbar journalists] when it comes to Xinjiang and Uyghurs,” said Benjamin Ismaïl of Reports Without Borders.
Some international correspondents in China are more concerned about their local counterparts, the fixers and translators, who may be putting their safety and freedoms at risk by helping them report.
“It’s a different ballgame for the Chinese journalists,” said Richardson.
In response to the global attention to the Chinese foreign minister’s outburst in Canada on Wednesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said, “I think, you, as reporters, may ask yourselves whether you have been unbiased when reporting on China, especially on human rights issue.”
“Do you relay fully and correctly your information on China to your audience?” she asked.