The Media Today

In China, journalists are targets and collateral

February 12, 2021

A year ago next week, under President Trump, the State Department designated five Chinese media outlets—official mouthpieces of their country, with bureaus in the United States—as missions of a foreign government. The next day, China responded by kicking out three reporters for the Wall Street Journal, a move that doubled as retaliation for an opinion headline in the Journal declaring China “the real sick man of Asia.” The Trump administration then forced out some sixty journalists working for Chinese state media. China, in turn, ejected almost every American working for the Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and designated those outlets—as well as Voice of America and Time—foreign missions. As Shen Lu reported for CJR, at least six Chinese citizens working as researchers at US outlets also lost their jobs. The tit-for-tat continued in May, when the US placed stringent time limits on Chinese reporters’ visas, which had previously been open-ended. In September, China declined to renew the press cards of foreign reporters working for CNN, the Journal, Bloomberg News, and Getty Images. Journalists in both countries remain in limbo.

In recent days, a series of developments have reminded us that media-related tensions with China aren’t an exclusively American phenomenon. Last Thursday, a journalism-adjacent spat between China and the United Kingdom burst into the open when the Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported that the British government quietly expelled three Chinese media workers last year, after concluding that they were using their journalistic positions as cover to spy for Beijing. Also last Thursday, Ofcom, Britain’s media regulator, revoked the operating license of China Global Television Network, a Chinese state broadcaster; Ofcom ruled, following a long-term investigation, that CGTN is controlled by the Chinese government in breach of British rules around editorial independence, and had failed to take steps to disentangle itself despite being given “significant time” to do so. Chinese officials described the ruling as “political bullying” and threatened to retaliate. Yesterday, they followed through by banning BBC World News from broadcasting inside China; the BBC had not been widely available before (its distribution was limited mostly to hotels and diplomatic compounds), but the ban also curtailed its footprint in Hong Kong, where RTHK, a public broadcaster, had disseminated BBC World Service radio. Targeting the BBC seemed an obvious choice: Chinese officials had recently reacted furiously to a BBC investigation that unearthed claims of “an organized system of mass rape, sexual abuse, and torture” inside detention camps in Xinjiang, a Chinese province where authorities have been persecuting the Muslim Uighur population. The officials accused the BBC of undermining “Chinese ethnic unity.”

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Australian journalists, too, have faced intensifying repression at the hands of the Chinese government. Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer who stands accused of espionage, has been in pre-trial detention in China for more than two years. Last August, Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen who worked as an anchor for CGTN in China, disappeared; CGTN scrubbed its website of her work, and officials later confirmed that she had been detained on national-security grounds. A few weeks later, police interrogated two other Australian journalists—Bill Birtles, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Mike Smith, of the Australian Financial Review—about Cheng, even though neither man knew her well. Fearing that they, too, would be detained, both Birtles and Smith fled; according to the New York Times, “they were the last two correspondents working in China for Australian news outlets.” In December, Chinese authorities arrested Haze Fan, a Bloomberg reporter who is not Australian but is a close friend of Cheng’s. On Monday, China converted Cheng’s detention into an official arrest, and accused her, with no specifics, of leaking state secrets. Australian officials have expressed concern about her treatment and condition; Cheng’s family has called for her release, noting that she is a single mother with two young children based in Melbourne.

The mistreatment of foreign reporters has taken place against a backdrop of worsening conditions for Chinese journalists generally. China was already one of the world’s top jailers of journalists when, early last year, following a brief, surprising window of press freedom, authorities cracked down on independent journalism about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Police silenced Li Wenliang, a doctor who raised the alarm about COVID-19 before dying of the disease, a year ago this week. Censors scrubbed critical stories from the internet, and four citizen journalists in Wuhan—Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua, Fang Bin, and Zhang Zhan—disappeared. In December, Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison; Fang’s whereabouts are still unknown. Officials also detained Cai Wei, Chen Mei, and a woman named Tang who worked for “Terminus 2049,” a project aimed at preserving censored information, and arrested two filmmakers, Chen Jiaping and Du Bin. Early this year, the government announced that going forward, all journalists (including citizen journalists) must register for official accreditation. According to Fabian Kretschmer, of Deutsche Welle, authorities will start reviewing journalists’ professional and personal social-media histories as part of the accreditation process—a “seemingly small change” that will “likely have lasting consequences” since newsrooms and independent journalists alike have used social media as a way of circumventing the official censorship apparatus.

China’s anti-press menace has also projected outward from the mainland. Last year, the government imposed a draconian new security law in Hong Kong, which has traditionally been an oasis for independent reporting; officials have since used the law to arrest journalists including the pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai, raid newsrooms, and limit online speech. And, as the Committee to Protect Journalists has observed, Chinese diplomats overseas have increasingly engaged in so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy, a practice that has included making harsh public statements about their host countries’ news outlets; last year, for instance, the Chinese consulate in Sydney wrote to an Australian newspaper demanding that it praise China’s handling of the pandemic. A similar thing happened again just last week, when a senior Chinese diplomat in the UK scolded an executive from the BBC for “baselessly smearing and vilifying China’s national image” in its reporting from Xinjiang. Going forward, journalists are sure to keep getting trapped in China’s claws during geopolitical disputes. We can also expect that, at home and abroad, they will continue to be targeted for their work in its own right.

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Below, more on press freedom in China and around the world:

  • CJR on China: Last year, Betsy Morais, CJR’s managing editor, reported for our magazine on the challenges faced by China’s environmental journalists; they operate, Morais wrote, in “an epistemological fog… like exhaust from the factories that churned across China.” Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, covered the disappearance of Chen Qiushi on our podcast, The Kicker. Betsy Joles profiled an effort to archive Chinese coverage of the pandemic before it was scrubbed from the internet. And An Xiao Mina wrote that “to report on tech, journalists must also learn to report on China.”
  • Haiti: On Monday, Alvarez Destiné and Méus Jeanril, two journalists in Haiti, were shot and wounded after police used live ammunition to disperse a demonstration against the rule of Jovenel Moïse. On Wednesday, two more reporters were injured as police fired tear-gas canisters at protesters. According to Jacqueline Charles, who covers the Caribbean for the Miami Herald, video shared on social media “shows officers in the back of an unmarked white pick-up truck launching tear gas at a clearly marked media vehicle belonging to Radio Tele Pacific.”
  • Russia: In October, Irina Slavina, an independent journalist in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, died by suicide after setting herself on fire outside a local police precinct. Slavina, who had faced persistent harassment related to her work, told her readers to “please blame the Russian Federation” for her death. After journalists rushed to support Koza.Press, a news site that Slavina ran, her daughter, Margarita Murakhtaeva, pledged to keep the site operational. But this week, Murakhtaeva announced that she would shutter it. “It isn’t an easy decision, but, I believe it’s the only correct one,” she wrote. She did not offer a more detailed rationale. Meduza has more.
  • Poland: On Wednesday, news organizations in Poland went dark in protest of a government plan to tax their advertising revenue; Gazeta Wyborcza, an independent daily, for instance, blacked out its homepage and instead ran the message: “You should be able to see our content on this page. If the government’s plans are successful, maybe one day you will no longer see it for real.” Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice Party has been hostile toward the country’s press. The Guardian has more.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Lyz Lenz profiles Seth Abramson, “a lawyer turned poet turned professor turned journalist turned influencer” who has gained a huge following on Twitter by posting lengthy threads about the Trump-Russia scandal and other hot-button topics. “His approach—a form of meta-journalism, he explains—aims to correct a failure of our existing information delivery systems to make sense of the news. Yet Abramson’s meta-journalism may not actually be journalism: it’s just him sitting at home, tweeting out stories he’s stacked together like a house of cards, without vetting them for accuracy,” Lenz writes. “Is this the future?” she asks. “Or is Abramson just a one-off, born of a chaotic, conspiracy-addled administration and social media virality?”
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has details about how staffers at the Times are reacting to the exit of Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a science reporter who was recently revealed to have made racist remarks to high-school students. One staffer called it “the most explosive scandal I’ve seen at the paper”; another said that it’s “the end of the asshole era at the New York Times.” Yesterday, NBC reported that Bret Stephens, a conservative Times opinion writer, planned to criticize the paper’s handling of the situation in a column, only for management to “spike” it. And Dean Baquet, the executive editor, walked back a prior statement that the Times doesn’t “tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” after staffers at the paper and external critics argued that context is important, and that a blanket edict could weaken the paper’s coverage of race. “We shouldn’t ban any words from our journalism if we are going to cover the world as it is,” Baquet said.
  • Bloomberg News is laying off nearly a hundred staffers as part of a restructuring of its newsroom. In a memo, John Micklethwait, the editor in chief, told colleagues that they are currently “losing” stories due to inefficient editorial processes, such as managers wasting time “setting up conference calls when they should just have been writing,” and teams delivering “enterprise pieces that nobody wanted.” The restructure is intended to “elevate editing,” and facilitate the expansion of “priority areas like data journalism.”
  • Staffers at the publishing platform Medium are unionizing with the Communications Workers of America. “While many newsrooms have unionized to address immediate concerns such as mass layoffs, lack of pay equity, or glaring diversity issues,” CNN’s Kerry Flynn writes, “Medium staffers said they are not seeking to bargain over specific changes, for now.” The priority, one staffer told Flynn, “is really to unite the workforce.”
  • The Asian American Journalists Association and various activists and celebrities have called on newsrooms to devote more coverage to anti-Asian racism, including a recent spate of violence targeting elderly Asian Americans. The attacks have been part of a trend exacerbated by “discrimination stemming from the coronavirus,” AAJA said. “This violence includes AAPI journalists facing race-related harassment while doing their jobs.” (For more on anti-Asian harassment and the press, CJR’s Camille Bromley spoke last year with Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University who has tracked media coverage of COVID-19 related to xenophobia.)
  • Yesterday, The Guardian launched “America’s Dirty Divide,” a year-long project that will explore “why access to clean air, water, and sanitation is often divided along race and class lines.” The series, which will also include documentaries produced by Nexus Media, opened with a story about Centreville, Illinois, a majority-Black town that is flooded with sewage, and a profile of Catherine Flowers, a leading sanitation activist.
  • WGN News, in Chicago, spotlighted the work of journalism students at Roosevelt University who investigated the unsolved murders of fifty-one women who were strangled in the city between 2001 and 2018. “I am convinced that if there were fifty-one dogs that were killed in the city of Chicago, the city would be up in arms,” John W. Fountain, the professor who led the project, said, “and we aren’t with these women.”
  • Katherine Creag, a reporter for NBC News 4, in New York, has died. She was forty-seven. “Instantly recognizable for her distinctive voice and hearty laugh, Creag was the first face many New Yorkers woke up to every day,” News 4 wrote. “Her passing was unexpected; she had not been ill and was working as recently as Wednesday morning.”
  • And Aaron Epstein, a ninety-year-old man in California, paid ten-thousand dollars to run a print ad in the Wall Street Journal complaining about slow AT&T internet in his neighborhood. The ad ran in Dallas, where AT&T is headquartered, and in Manhattan, where Epstein hoped investors might see the ad and put pressure on the company.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.