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China threatens foreign journalists for 'illegal' reporting

Police ask journalists to leave as they cover people gathering at a planned protest site in Beijing on Feb. 20, 2011. (AP/Andy Wong)

New York, March 3, 2011--Police threats to revoke foreign journalists' visas and require advance permission for newsgathering are disturbing new efforts to restrict reporting on protests in China, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Police told some foreign journalists they could lose their accreditation and residence permits if they conduct "illegal" reporting in parts of central Beijing and Shanghai without permission, according to Reuters and other international news reports. Some journalists reported being told that advance consent would be required for any filming in China going forward. The warnings were given to journalists from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, the BBC, and other news outlets, in meetings held Wednesday and today, according to international news reports.

Wangfujing, a downtown shopping street in Beijing, and a section of Shanghai near the People's Square, were apparently ruled off-limits because of unsigned online calls for Sunday afternoon protests in Chinese cities modeled on recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the reports. Turnout in response to the calls, which were first issued February 19, has been weak. Yet police and plainclothed security officials flooded Wangfujing last Sunday, detaining at least a dozen foreign journalists and injuring two.

The order contravenes regulations issued in advance of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 that allow foreign reporters to interview any consenting subject. Journalists had previously needed official permission to travel for reporting, a restriction that still applies in areas the government considers sensitive, like the Tibetan Autonomous Region, according to CPJ research. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied any change in regulations, according to a The Wall Street Journal report.

"The Chinese government is doing itself serious damage with these blatant attempts to bully the foreign media into silence," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "These vague warnings, contradictory regulations, and intimidation of the international press corps show that China's commitments on press freedom to secure the Olympics were just a veneer."

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said some members had been warned to seek permission to report from Wangfujing before Sunday's clashes. But it was not clear how to contact the appropriate Public Security Bureau, and even journalists who believed they had obtained the go-ahead were physically pushed off the streets. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas wrote: "We stopped when they asked us, showed them our documents, and waited for permission to proceed."

Beijing-based media blog Danwei reported Wednesday that regulations governing the Wangfujing area as of January 1 have appeared on the district government website with a newly-inserted clause forbidding "unauthorized interviews or photography that gathers people together." "The new rules seem to have been posted online fairly recently, and do not show up in a Baidu web search as of this afternoon," Danwei wrote. Baidu is a Chinese search engine. CPJ could not confirm the clause because links to the Dongcheng district website were inactive from New York on Thursday.

The government has used its visa and accreditation process to control foreign journalists in the past. Visa procedures tightened for journalists in 2008 before the Olympics, even for long-time residents not governed by the specific registration requirements for reporting the Games. A Tibetan Radio Free Asia reporter was denied entry despite formal accreditation.

Foreign journalists have also been harassed and detained in central Beijing for reporting on protests and sensitive political anniversaries, even since the improved regulations were introduced in 2007.  But this week's interference has been particularly severe and been accompanied by severe online censorship. Several bloggers and activists are have been arrested on suspicion of state subversion or report police surveillance, and malicious messages on Twitter target journalists and activists who discuss the proposed demonstrations, according to CPJ research.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: CPJ and the PEN American Center issued a statement today calling for China to end its restriction of the press.

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