Authorities Reportedly Beat, Detain, and Threaten Foreign Journalists Covering "Jasmine Revolution"

March 22, 2011

In late February and early March 2011, Chinese authorities reportedly beat, took into custody, monitored, threatened, or otherwise harassed foreign journalists attempting to cover an anonymous online call for people to engage in regular demonstrations at major cities in China. Dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution," people have been urged to gather at popular sites, such as the Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing and People's Square in Shanghai, at 2 pm on Sundays beginning on February 20. Foreign journalists reported rough treatment while covering the Wangfujing site on February 27 and continued harassment in the days that followed. Some foreign journalists saw the recent incidents as a departure from the relative freedom they have been allowed as a result of China's hosting the 2008 Olympics. Their domestic counterparts, however, continue to operate under heavy censorship as authorities prevent the public at large from accessing information about the protests.

February 27: Beating, Rough Treatment, Detention, and Deleted Video in Beijing

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC, 28 February 11, link no longer available, but also reported in Associated Press, 28 February 11) said that on February 27 organized "thugs" responded to the presence of foreign journalists at Wangfujing by beating one journalist severely, physically injuring two others, and detaining and manhandling journalists in incidents involving 16 news organizations. The severely beaten journalist, employed by Bloomberg, reportedly was punched and kicked by at least five men who appeared to be plainclothes security officers (Bloomberg, 27 February 11). He later sought treatment at a local hospital. According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter who witnessed the incident, uniformed officers stationed nearby failed to intercede and sought to prevent journalists and bystanders from viewing or stopping the beating (8 March 11). In another incident, a CNN journalist said police dragged her and her crew to a nearby bank, where officers briefly detained them and deleted their video (28 February 11). The FCCC called the official response in Beijing "well orchestrated," noting that "small groups of thugs suddenly appeared and grabbed journalists holding cameras. Several of those journalists were dragged out of sight and brought into shops or alleys where the thugs tried to take their equipment." Several news organizations have posted videos and accounts of the harassment, including CNN (see previous), BBC (27 February 11), and the Voice of America (27 February 11).

After February 27: Police Summon Journalists for Meetings, Threaten to Revoke Credentials; Tracking, Monitoring, Further Detentions of Journalists

Authorities also have summoned journalists to meetings where they were asked to promise not to report on the so-called "Jasmine Revolution." The FCCC said that on February 28, authorities in Shanghai summoned news organizations and asked them to sign a pledge not to film or photograph outside the Peace Cinema, near the People's Square, which has been designated a "no reporting" zone. The New York Times (NYT) said a journalist reportedly was asked to sign a pledge to refrain from ever reporting on the "Jasmine Revolution," a request which the reporter refused (6 March 11). On March 2 and 3, Beijing police summoned staff from numerous news organizations, including the Associated Press (AP) and Agence France-Presse, for videotaped meetings and told them they faced punishment if they attempted to report at "Jasmine" sites in Beijing and Shanghai (AP via Washington Post, 3 March 11). AP reported that officials threatened to expel journalists from the country or to revoke their credentials.

Journalists also reported being placed under surveillance or visited by police (NYT, 6 March 11). On Saturday, March 5, plainclothes police in Beijing reportedly staked out the home of the severely beaten Bloomberg journalist and followed and recorded him attending a basketball game the next day. Authorities called or visited the homes of at least a dozen other journalists, including those for NYT, AP, CNN, NBC, and Bloomberg, and warned them not to make trouble or attempt to "topple the party." One journalist reported that authorities knocked on his door at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday, March 6. Also on Sunday, Shanghai authorities reportedly rounded up approximately a dozen European and Japanese journalists and held them for two hours in an underground room.

Chinese Officials Defend Actions, Claim Journalists Broke Rules

Chinese officials have defended the police's handling of foreign journalists and denied any were beaten. "There is no such issue as Chinese police officers beating foreign journalists," said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on March 7 (WSJ, 8 March 11). At a March 3 press conference, foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said the journalists had disrupted "normal order" and violated certain rules, but foreign journalists expressed confusion over what the rules are (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 5 March 11). National regulations issued in 2008 that made permanent less restrictive conditions put in place for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, provide that foreign journalists may interview any individual or organization with the consent of the interviewee only (whereas journalists previously were required to obtain the approval of a local foreign affairs office before reporting outside of Beijing). Officials, however, reportedly have now designated Wangfujing and the People's Square as "no-reporting" zones or are requiring journalists to obtain permits to carry out interviews or take photographs there (NYT, 1 March 11). The legal basis for the permit requirement appears to be several rules that have been issued only within the last few months. Danwei, a Web site that covers the media in China, noted that on January 1, 2011, new rules issued by the Wangfujing District Construction Management Office went into effect governing the management of the pedestrian street area of Wangfujing (2 March 11). Article 5 of those rules says that the Wangfujing District Construction Management Office is "responsible for managing and approving" the reporting activities of domestic and foreign journalists. In Shanghai, the Huangpu District City Management Work Joint Conference Office issued a rule in December 2010 that covers the People's Square area, among other parts of Shanghai, and requires domestic and foreign journalists to obtain official permission before reporting there (Article 3). At least one news organization reported still being prevented from filming at one of the sites despite having obtained a permit (AP, 28 February 11).

For more information on Chinese officials' abuse of broad permit requirements to restrict free expression, see pp. 57-58, 65-66, 68, 69-70, in Section II―Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2010 Annual Report. For information on the recent harassment of foreign journalists attempting to cover the home confinement and alleged beatings of rights defender Chen Guangcheng and his wife Yuan Weijing in Shandong province, see this CECC analysis. For more information on the "Jasmine Revolution" and Chinese authorities' attempts to censor online searches and discussion of the event, see this CECC analysis.