Covering China: for foreign and domestic press, self-censorship’s the threat

A plainclothes policeman, center, tries to block a foreign journalist filming while police detain the supporters of Xu Zhiyong near the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing Wednesday. Xu, a legal scholar and founder of the New Citizens movement, is on trial facing a charge organzing a crowd to disrupt public order. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

It’s not easy being a journalist in China these days.

Chinese reporters are facing new government restrictions, including forced training in Marxism and a new written “ideology” exam. Some, pushing the investigative envelope, have been detained, demoted and fired. Bloggers have been arrested under a new law that forbids rumor-mongering.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists have had visa renewals held up by the government, with the threat of expulsion. The standoff grew so contentious that Vice President Joe Biden had to make a personal appeal to China’s president before last-minute visas were issued earlier this month.

The troubles have prompted soul-searching among journalists about their cumulative effect. The key question for many is whether government intimidation will lead to self-censorship.

Some believe the self-censorship is already happening. They point to recent allegations that Bloomberg killed a story in response to government pressure. The Bloomberg story was to explore ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and top Chinese leaders’ families. (Bloomberg has denied the allegations and said the article is still active, but it also suspended Michael Forsythe, the reporter suspected of leaking the allegations. He has since joined The New York Times.)

On the other end of the spectrum, those who downplay the possibility of self-censorship note with reason that recent China coverage has in many ways been more aggressive and ground-breaking than ever before. Using financial records, newsrooms at Bloomberg and the Times have chronicled the accumulation of wealth among the families of Communist party leaders. That reporting is in part why the government has cracked down so strongly.

Many also point out that the journalists here and all over the world are motivated by the same things – that heady mixture of desire for truth, a good story, making a difference, and the glory and prizes that follow. What a government thinks of your stories usually trails far behind in terms of motivation.

But is it a factor nonetheless?

It’s a tough question to answer. After talking with a range of fellow working journalists in Beijing, I believe that — as with most things in this world — the truth is complicated.

Just one more problem to deal with

For many correspondents, the threat of visa denials is just one more addition to the already hefty pile of frustrations about reporting in China. Your phones are often tapped, your computers hacked and offices bugged. Journalists of interest to the government routinely receive warnings from Google saying their Gmail accounts appear to be under state-sponsored attack.

You often feel ridiculous about all the precautions you take to report a sensitive story. But then something happens — a source is detained or an official coyly mentions a detail — that not only confirms your suspicions but also makes you redouble your efforts.

Last year, an annual survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China showed that 63 foreign journalists had been stopped by authorities in the course of their reporting, with at least nine cases involving violence. In the most recent case on Wednesday, journalists from CNN, BBC and other outlets were roughed up by police outside the trial of a rights activist, with the CNN reporter detained and his camera broken.

Despite that, FCCC president Peter Ford said in an interview in his Beijing office that aside from the recent Bloomberg allegations, “I don’t know of anyone who has held a story because they thought it would get them in trouble.”

Many reporters here, speaking anonymously for fear of causing trouble for their organizations or themselves, also point out that Bloomberg is a bit of an anomaly. As a company, its revenue relies heavily on sales of its business terminals, and that interest came under direct fire by the China’s government after its 2012 expose on the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family. Most news organizations aren’t vulnerable in the same way, journalists in China argue.

But what’s new is the fact that the government is now taking action against entire institutions — such as the Times and Bloomberg — rather than just targeting individual reporters. And many here fear it signals that the government is much more willing to risk international embarrassment in order to punish or prevent sensitive reporting.

Lesser forms of self-censorship

A killed story isn’t the only way self-censorship manifests itself, others point out.

Paul Mooney spent 18 years reporting from China before his visa expired. He was forced to give up on returning to China last November after his application for a new visa under Reuters was denied. Soon after, Mooney said, a European journalist called to do a story. The reporter told Mooney he wanted to interview him, but would wait until January to run the story because he feared it could affect his own visa issues.

“I think more people may do that sort of thing, delaying their stories at the end of the year,” Mooney said in a phone interview from California. “It’s insidious. And over time it may cause people to have second thoughts about certain stories. Is this one worth getting kicked out and not being able to do those other ones?”

Some also worry that those especially equipped for China reporting will be forced out, including reporters with fluency not only in the Chinese language but also in the workings of the government and sourcing.

Austin Ramzy, a journalist who’s worked from China for more than six years, hasn’t been given a permanent visa since he joined The New York Times last year and faces expulsion at the end of January.

Two other new Times hires, longtime China veterans Philip Pan and Chris Buckley, are now in their second year of waiting for visas. Similarly, Bloomberg has been unable to get permanent visas for new reporters it wants to send to China, only renewals for current reporters.

Even worse for Chinese journalists

Despite the attention paid to foreign media in China, the increased threats faced by Chinese journalists these days are even more serious. Many report that more stories than ever are being censored and say they now at times even have to seek permission for interviews.

In one of the most extensive explorations of the new domestic restrictions, my Washington Post colleague Simon Denyer wrote this month that journalists “sometimes talk of their profession as ‘dancing with shackles.’ The shackles are provided by the propaganda ministry, through directives to editors about what can and cannot be covered. Reporters at the Southern Weekly newspaper say they received more than 1,000 such messages in 2012.”

Walking the line is a delicate affair — Chinese journalists have told me privately that you often don’t know you’ve crossed it until it’s too late and the consequences are crashing down upon you. In such an environment, they say, you begin identifying what you can’t report for yourself even before the government tells you. In recent years, the party has also replaced editors in charge of news coverage as a way of pre-empting sensitive reporting before it begins.

Real investigative work often requires protection – a boss or owner who has government allies with enough juice to shelter sensitive work. That can mean subjecting your work at times to the agenda of others.

It’s also often difficult to know whom to trust, including those helping you with an investigation.

“To get information, you need middlemen who have access to the higher levels, but you can never trust those middlemen,” said one Chinese reporter. “They will betray you at the drop of a hat if it benefits them.”

As a result, some have walked away from journalism altogether.

It’s a game best left to the young, said one Chinese journalist — once you know how it works, you lose hope in the news business.

But there are also those who remain undaunted.

“There is so much in flux in China right now, so much that needs to be reported,” said another Chinese reporter. “Yes, things are more difficult now, but this is also when society needs us most.”

More about the state of Chinese journalism and the question of self-censorship:

William Wan is The Washington Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He has previously covered U.S. foreign policy and religion and has won multiple awards, including Religion Writer of the Year and the 2011 American Society of News Editors prize for distinguished writing on diversity.

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  • rockerred

    Damn straight I self-censor when covering China! I’m freelance, and if I get thrown in jail or worse the next time I enter the country there’s no mother ship with counsel on retainer to bail me out .

  • Codewizard

    Yes, Poynter, being thrown in a gulag and tortured for reporting the “wrong” thing is NOT a threat.

    WOW!

    Self-censoring has never been problem to the US media previously; why is it now?