PRC’s detention, questioning of reporters adds to journalism freedom fears

PRC’s detention, questioning of reporters adds to journalism freedom fears


The mysterious detention of an Australian citizen working for China’s state-run broadcaster and the subsequent evacuation of two Australian reporters based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are heightening long-standing concerns over journalistic freedom in the PRC.

Additionally, an American newspaper reported in early September 2020 that one of its journalists was detained for hours by police and then forcibly expelled from Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region in the PRC. Alice Su, the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau chief, was reporting on a controversial new education policy that requires schools to use standard Chinese instead of indigenous Mongolian languages as the primary language of instruction.

The policy prompted protests and classroom boycotts, with ethnic Mongolians saying it’s another attempt by Chinese authorities to wipe out their cultural identity.

Within a week of Su’s expulsion from Hohhot, journalists Michael Smith and Bill Birtles returned to Australia after a prolonged standoff as Australian diplomats sought to secure their passage home from China.

Birtles, the Beijing-based correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), and Smith, the Shanghai-based correspondent for The Australian Financial Review newspaper, had spent days sheltering in Australian consular offices after receiving late-night visits from China’s state security police, ABC reported September 8.

The men were the only accredited journalists for Australian media organizations remaining in the PRC. They were permitted to leave China only after agreeing to be interviewed by police.

“The effort to keep foreign journalists in China against their will marks a significant escalation of an ongoing, sustained Chinese government assault on media freedoms,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China tweeted September 8. “The @fccchina denounces this extraordinary erosion of media freedoms leading foreign journalists to fear that they could be targets of China’s hostage diplomacy.”

Birtles and Smith said police asked them about Cheng Lei, pictured, a news anchor with English-language state broadcaster China Global Television Network. Lei, an Australian citizen born in China, was detained in mid-August 2020. Chinese officials said she is “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security” but have provided no details, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported September 9.

The allegations mean Lei, the mother of two young children, can be detained for months without being charged or given legal assistance, the report stated.

“Secretive detentions, a lack of access to lawyers and vague, drawn-out legal processes have defined multiple national security cases involving foreigners in recent years,” Birtles wrote in an article on ABC’s website. “There was no way I wanted to be made to sign anything that was false or would be used to incriminate others.”

The recent incidents reflect the growing unease over censorship of foreign media in the PRC, where internal news organizations generally are owned and tightly controlled by the state.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which represents Beijing-based journalists reporting on China, said the PRC’s state-sanctioned harassment of reporters is increasing. A survey of 114 correspondents from 25 nations found that 82% of respondents “experienced interference or harassment or violence” while doing their job in 2019, the organization said. More than 40% of reporters said “digital/physical surveillance” affected their work.