Based on the 109 responses that the Beijing-based FCCC received to the questionnaire it sent to its 204 members from 31 countries and territories in December, the report described the situation as “worse now than it has been in the past 20 years,” except 2011, when coverage of pro-democracy protests prompted a major government backlash.
“The constant harassment is all the more shocking because China takes as much advantage as possible of the press freedom in other countries in order to spread its propaganda,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “We urge the international community to put pressure on the Chinese regime to stop harassing foreign journalists and their sources.”
Nowadays the government seems to be refraining from the more overt forms of pressure on foreign journalists, such as “invitations to tea” at the ministry of state security, or attempts by Chinese diplomats to put pressure on the head offices of their media outlets abroad. Instead the authorities are using more insidious methods, including phone tapping, hacking and physical surveillance.
Almost all the foreign journalists who managed to visit the western Xinjiang region, where a major crackdown on the Uyghur community is under way, reported such forms of harassment as being followed, being briefly arrested, being ordered to delete recorded material or even having their hotel reservations cancelled.
The threat of being denied a visa intensified in 2018 when BuzzFeed News bureau chief Megha Rajagopalan was effectively expelled in August after being unable to renew her visa. This was the first time any foreign journalist was refused the renewal of their visa since 2016, when the French journalist Ursula Gauthier and the Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson were the victims.
In what was a clear warning, visas of unusually short duration were also issued to journalists with the New York Times, BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sankei Shimbun and Voice of America.
Threats to Chinese sources, especially academic ones, have become so common that foreign journalists now hesitate to contact them for fear of putting them in danger. “It’s by far the worst I’ve seen working as a journalist in China or Hong Kong since 2000,” Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Tom Mitchell said.
FCCC president Hanna Sahlberg agreed. “There is a risk that even foreign media will shy away from stories that are perceived as too troublesome, or costly, to tell in China,” Sahlberg said.
China ranked 176 out of 180 in the 2018 RSF World Press Freedom Index.