Cautionary China tale for foreign journalists


Western media prepares to cover Olympics

BEIJING -- On the ground in the Chinese capital, the most obvious place for visiting journalists to turn for advice is to the veteran Chinese news assistants who help foreign correspondents get stories. After a little exposure to the openness of Western media, many work with a strong desire to bridge the gap between China and their employers, who are responsible for shaping world opinion of the Middle Kingdom.

One such Shanghai-born producer, working as the fixer in the Beijing bureau of a major Western television broadcaster, agreed to tell the following story as long as neither he nor his employer was named for fear of recrimination if it was discovered he was working without a journalist's visa.

Several Chinese news assistants have been jailed for less in recent years.

A Caucasian cameraman, a Caucasian anchor and the Chinese producer were filming a piece about hydroelectric dams for an environmental news segment shot in Yunnan Province in South China near Burma.

They drove onto the dam, noticing tourists posing for pictures but no warning signs. Going up a hill for a better vantage point, the cameraman got out to survey the site and found it was a military garrison, strictly off-limits to foreigners.

They retreated, but when nothing happened, they stopped, got out again and started to shoot B-roll to use with the anchor's stand-up. Nearly done, they were alarmed when military police vans came screaming down the hill, sirens blaring.

The MPs raised their hands in front of the camera, threatened arrest and confiscation of the tape. Thinking hard, the Chinese fixer pointed to the gawking tourists and noted that no signs identified the place as off-limits. The police only got angrier.

The fixer gave the MPs a pamphlet signed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao outlining the rules that since January have allowed foreign reporters free access to most parts of China. The pamphlet issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is jokingly referred to as the modern stand-in for Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" of quotations. The MPs had never heard of the pamphlet nor the new rules and said that they did not apply to the military anyway.

The fixer was relieved when what he slangily refers to as the "visa cops" showed up. These policemen answer to the Ministry, unlike the MPs, who answer only to the People's Liberation Army.

But the visa cops had not heard of the new regulations either and again threatened arrest.

The fixer, meanwhile, was relieved the more he realized that neither the MPs nor the visa cops had much experience with foreign reporters and did not speak or read English. All the authorities gathered suggested that the foreign TV team avoid such conflict in the future by "applying through the appropriate channels" the next time they wished to report stories outside Beijing and Shanghai.

The lesson? "Don't panic, and be nice," the fixer said. "Remember, if you report outside Beijing, you are sure to be the guests of people who've not spent much time around foreigners."

The Ministry rules put in place in January, due to expire after the Olympics, were designed to do away with just this sort of red tape. Foreign reporters now are supposed to be allowed to do their work with only verbal consent from their desired interview subject no matter where he or she is.

Melinda Liu, the Newsweek Beijing bureau chief and the elected president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China -- a dues-paying group of more than 300 of the roughly 700 Ministry-accredited foreign reporters working in China -- recalls the story of a Chinese reporter who interviewed her about a 2007 FCCC survey about treatment of foreign journalists. The local reporter appeared to fear that Liu's answers would reflect a view of the Beijing government that he would be unable to write about without getting in trouble. His solution?

"It was the first time I could remember where the interviewer wanted to be off the record instead of the interviewee," Liu said. "Don't expect Chinese journalists to be like Western media. The gap remains huge. In some ways the Olympics are pushing these reporters more than ever before to at least understand how foreign journalists work."

Liu, who's been reporting from China for more than a decade, said she has seen access improve, with the number of official events to which foreign reporters are invited by the Olympic organizing committee on the rise. However, some still think content and substance lag behind.

"We don't see genuine transparency yet," she said. "But at least they're trying."

Offering tips to journalists visiting China for the first time, Liu stressed that it is important not to assume that Chinese media officials will know how other nations work with the press.

If you're in real trouble on the ground, Liu cautioned to not automatically react as you might in other countries. Two British journalists might still be in jail if they had followed the advice of their own embassy not to say anything until a lawyer arrived or confess anything to their police captors.

"Lawyers in China don't move quickly to bail people out of police stations. It can take days or more," Liu said. "Veteran foreign correspondents often 'confess' to innocuous things just to get released, such as saying, 'I admit I came to X place intending to commit journalism, but when I got here I couldn't find anyone to talk with so I left."

The lesson here, she said, is that sometimes the police "just need some kind of piece of paper so that he could say, 'The foreign journalist admitted what he had done.' "