Press Freedom in China Bulletin: March

Welcome to IFJ Asia-Pacific’s monthly Press Freedom in China Campaign e-bulletin. The next bulletin will be sent onApril9, 2015.

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In this bulletin:

1)    Cyberspace Administrative Office order removal of ‘sensitive reports’

2)    Xinjiang government orders surveillance of IT purchasers

3)    Maojian District Court delays reporting assault by Communist party secretary

4)    FCCC survey finds that the visa renewal process still has issues

5)    Two French journalists barred from interviewing political prisoner Hada

6)    Reporters Without Boarders press freedom index on decline in China

7)    TVB’s political impartiality under scrutiny   

8)    Hong Kong Police continue to block media coverage of protests

9)    HK Police Commissioner withholds information of official trips

1) Cyberspace Administrative Office orders removal of ‘sensitive reports’

Prior to 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National Congress in Beijing on March 5, the Cyberspace Administrative Office and the Central Propaganda Department began the usual ‘clean up’ of Chinese media, ordering the removal of any media relating to ‘sensitive topics’.  

On 28 February 2015, a documentaryby former anchor with state broadcaster China Central Television, Chai Jing, was released about China’s air pollution problem called Under the Dome. Within 24 hours of been online the documentary garnered 155 million views and the Beijing Internet Management Office ordered that all media administrators should refrain from further promoting the documentary.

On 3 March 2015, the Beijing Internet Management Office and Shanghai Propaganda Department issued a second order demanding all media remove the documentary from their websites immediately. The authorities also demanded that website administrators monitor all media and delete any messages or commentaries that are casting doubt or attack the government. The Management Office also demanded that the order be kept secret.

On March 4, the Cyberspace Administrative Office announced that 32 websites had been shut down due to not following relevant regulations, disseminating negative information and fabricating fake news. No evidence was given to prove the allegations.

On 9 February, the Cyberspace Administration Office and the Central Propaganda Department ordered all media outlets to delete any information about the Minister of the Education Bureau, Yuan Guiren, and his supporter Zhu Jidong, a scholar of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, whose names had been included on the list of HSBC clients who were involved in the use of secret bank accounts to help clients avoid taxation in their home countries. Yuan Guiren, the Minister of the Education Bureau had urged education institutions to exert tighter control over the use of imported textbooks "that spread Western values". On January 29, he went on to say that classrooms should be clear of material that is "defaming the rule of the Communist Party, smearing socialism or violating the constitution and laws". Zhu Jidong, a scholar of <st1:placename w:st="on">Chinese</st1:placename> <st1:placetype w:st="on">Academy</st1:placetype> of Social Sciences which is a think tank of the authority of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region></st1:place>, encouraged punishment for those who were against Yuan’s decision. On 8 February, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that Global banking giant, HSBC used the Swiss banking system to conceal the identities of accounts holders in order to help depositors avoid paying taxes. Clients included former and current politicians, tycoon, lawyers, judges, and celebrities from <st1:country-region w:st="on">Britain</st1:country-region>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">Russia</st1:country-region>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region>, <st1:place w:st="on">Hong Kong</st1:place>, to name a few. According to Hong Kong media and overseas media the clients on the list include former Premier of China Li Peng’s only daughter Li Xiaolin, CEO of China Power International Development listed company, Russian billionaire Gennady Nikolayevich Timchenko, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian President Ben Ali and current Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.

2) Xinjiang government orders surveillance of IT purchasers

As the new Counter-Terrorism Bill waits consideration by representatives of the National Congress in Beijing, the IFJ and other international organisations have expressed their concern that the bill will extend the powers and control of the Chinese authorities. Under the proposed Bill, many report that the authorities will have more power for intrusive surveillance of individuals, and be able to delete ‘anti-terrorism’ information under the guise of national security. In Xinjiang, an autonomous region of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region></st1:place>, authorities have started increasing their surveillance with all IT vendors now required to register the personal identification of cell phone and computer purchasers and send the information to the police department. Vendors are also now required to install CCTV surveillance at the entrance to their shops and maintain 24 hour surveillance systems.     

3) Maojian District Court delays reporting assault by Communist party secretary

The district court of Maojian delayed reporting to the public that the internal communist party secretary had assaulted a doctor following the death of his wife on February 21. According to a report on February <st1:chmetcnv tcsc="0" numbertype="1" negative="False" hasspace="True" sourcevalue="24" unitname="in" w:st="on">24 in</st1:chmetcnv> the Beijing Times, Qin Mincheng, communist party secretary of Maojian District Court, took his wife to the hospital on February 20, where she was hospitalised in the intensive care unit. The following day, Qin was informed that his wife had died.  It was then reported that Qin lost his temper and punched the doctor and an intern nurse in the head. The District Court’s official weibo account announced the incident a few days later, however referred to it as a scuffle not an assault and said they were investigating.

4) FCCC survey finds that the visa renewal process still has issues

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) has released a new survey finding that the visa renewal process, for foreign journalists, is improving. More than half of the 216 survey respondents said they were able to receive their press cards within 12 days, as stipulated by the Foreign Ministry and 95 percent were able to collect their residence visas from the Police Bureau within 15 days. Disturbingly, the FCCC found one case where a journalist who had fallen seriously ill last year was unable to get her passport to go to Hong Kong for medical treatment due to bureaucratic procedures. Problems with the visa renewal process are still prominent with FCCC finding ten cases where journalists were threatened with visa cancellation or non-renewal by officials.

Journalists using the J-2 visiting journalist visa continued to note problems during application. On eight occasions the survey found journalists who had abandoned reporting trips because of extensive delays in obtaining the J-2 visa. The FCCC said: “We are disturbed to find that the Chinese authorities are continuing to abuse the press card and visa renewal process in a political manner, treating journalistic accreditation as a privilege rather than a professional right, and punishing reporters and media organizations for the content of their previous coverage if it has displeased the government.”

5) Two French journalists barred from interviewing political prisoner Hada

On February 21, two journalists from French daily, Le Monde, were detained by police for four hours when they arrived at the residence of Hada, a political prisoner. Brice Pedroletti, one of the journalists, said that they were followed by police as they drove to Hada’s residence. Upon their arrival, a number of security agents demanded to check their visas. Shortly after police arrived and they were taken to the local police station. After the interrogation, they were escorted to the airport by officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hada in 2010 after serving out a 15 year sentence was illegally detained for another four years before he was released on December 9, 2014. When Hada heard of the detention of the journalists, he went to the police station and requested to see them, but he was denied. Hada said: “I’m still under surveillance. When I do some exercise in the outside garden, I noticed some people watching me. I can only see my family members but not friends or press.”

6) Reporters Without Boarders press freedom index on decline in China

Reporters Without Boarders (RSF) new Freedom Index report ranked China’s press freedom as 176 out of 180 countries. In 2014, Hong Kong and Taiwan declined in their rankings, with Hong Kong moving from 61 to 70. Delphine Halgand, from RSF, said that China detained the largest number of journalists in 2014 and continues to use many different methods to restrain the flow of information. Currently, she said 29 journalists were in detention in China. In 2014, two-thirds of the countries recorded a decline in press freedom from the previous year.

7) TVB’s political impartiality under scrutiny   

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply concerned by the continued decline of political impartiality through editorial compromise in Hong Kong’s largest free-to-air television network, Broadcasting Television of Hong Kong (TVB).

a) According to a report in a Hong Kong newspaper on March 2, TVB recruited, a former Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) secretary, as a managing editor. The new position will focus on editing Hong Kong political news. Prior to joining TVB, the recruit had been working for DAB for 10 years, which is the largest and oldest pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong. Kenneth Yuen, TVB head of news department denied any political consideration with the recruitment. However his recruitment has received internal and external backlash. A number of TVB employees are deeply worried that the current political inclination towards the establishment will further worsen the political independence of the news department.

b) Following Chinese Lunar New Year in February, several veteran journalists tendered their resignation. They included Lam Tsz-Ho, Tiffany Lau, Tsz-Yan, Stella Lam Chiu-Yee, Maggie Tam Mei-Kei, Julia Chiu Pui-Yu, Ho Wing-Hong and Peri Chow who have been working for TVB for almost 20 years. TVB journalists who wished to remain anonymous told IFJ that the morale in the news department is very low. Mid-level management have repeatedly told staff that if they are unhappy they can leave. One journalist said: “Journalists were alarmed and felt deeply disappointed after the incident on October 15, 2014. Although many journalists signed a joint letter to express their disappointment with the head of the news department and the description of the police assault was deleted from the original script it did not improve the situation. Every day we have to find different methods to carry news that the public should know about.”

c) A number of journalists were forbidden from covering political news during the Occupy Movement last year because they were ‘unreliable’. While journalists who were covering the protests were told by management not to criticize the police because “police are the weakest sector in the society and that the press has a duty to protect them” A second journalist told the IFJ that: “Some of the journalists asked our senior manager for the reason as to why so many journalists were forbidden from covering the protests or political news. However no reason was provided. We do not share the same views as management. Those labelled as ‘unreliable’ political journalists are experienced and outspoken. Many demanded to continue covering the stories and offered to help other staff write their stories in front of management but it was in vain.”Another journalist said: “You may notice the management eager to assign relatively inexperienced journalists to cover political news instead of assigning veteran journalists.”

On October 15, 2014 journalists exclusively recorded several police officers moving an Occupy Movement protester to a dark cover and beating him up for four minutes. However the report was changed and the voice-over was deleted after senior management made the call to the editorial department. It then sparked an outcry both internally and externally. Dozens of TVB journalists initiated an open letter to protest the changes. Three journalists were punished for their actions. A senior journalist, Ho was demoted to senior researcher and Chow was assigned to provide news to overseas media. The IFJ Asia Pacific Office said: “It is questionable that TVB, who are meant to remain impartial to politics would employ a member of a political party to head the political news desk. TVB has a duty to explain the decision and defend their impartiality. As a media, TVB will damage their credibility and violate the rules of free-to-air television in Hong Kong. They need to ensure they remain impartial to political influence and ensure the public is provided with informed and detail reports of incidents and news across Hong Kong.”

8) HK Police continue to block media coverage of protests   

The Hong Kong police continue to block journalists covering protests in Hong Kong, following the Occupy Movement protests in 2014.

a) On February 8,  Richard Scotford, a reporter for Hong Kong entertainment magazine BC Magazine was at a shopping mall in Tuen Mun covering a protest against multi-entry permits for Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong. According to an online video, Scotford was standing at the top of an escalator when a police officer asked him to get down, accusing him of crossing the police cordon, however Scotford ignored the request, instead showing his press card. Police ignored this and claimed he did not understand English. Scotford was forcibly removed from the protest area by police.

Following the incident, Scotford said: “Why is it that police now feel that they need to antagonize and confront people, yelling at them in their face? If you want someone to move ask them politely.”

b) On March 1, at least four journalists from Hong Kong Asia Television, Cable Television and Ming Pao were pepper sprayed by police as they were covering a hundred-person protest against parallel trading business in Yuen Long. Kwong Chu, a journalist with Hong Kong Asia Television, was pepper sprayed by police even as he identified himself as a journalist. Hong Kong Asia Television issued a statement criticizing the incident. The Hong Kong Police said that use of pepper spray against the journalists was an accident. The IFJ Asia Pacific Office said: “The reasoning given by the police is hardly convincing given there is footage showing Kwong been sprayed by one officer as he spoke to another. It is clear that the Police violated Charter 39 of the Police General Orders, which states that police have a duty to assist press to exercise their duties when they are reporting. We understand the duty of the police when monitoring protests and public demonstrations; however it is not in their power to overrule the rights of press freedom which are enshrined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong as well as the Constitution.”

During the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong last year, the IFJ recorded 39 attacks on journalists covering the events, a number of which were at the hands of police. The IFJ Press Freedom in China Report 2014 details a number of these attacks and the shifting repression placed on journalists in Hong Kong and China. The IFJ was among a list of several media organisations from local and international who expressed their concerns over the increased use of force by the police against journalists during the Occupy Movement in last 2014.

9) HK Police Commissioner withholds information of official trips

On February 15, a few hours after state-owned media organization Xinhua reported that the Police Commissioner had led a delegation to Beijing, the Hong Kong Government issued a press statement outlining the details of the trip. Commissioner of Police, Tsang Wai-hung led a seven-person delegation to Beijing on February 12 to attend the 23rd Bilateral Meeting between the Mainland Public Security Authorities and the Hong Kong Police. This is the second instance when Tsang did not make public information regarding official trips to Beijing. In 2012, Tsang met with Wang Guangya, Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council of China, in Beijing; however he did not publicise the trip until he returned to Hong Kong. Tsang claimed that this was common practice; however Hong Kong media criticized the withholding of information until after the fact.

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