Seriously? Reviving the Cold War?

It is amazing what some people will turn their attention to when they don’t want to face hard work.

The latest dodge in Congress comes from Republican California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Late last year the good congressman introduced a bill — H.R. 2899 – the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act of 2011 — that would allow the U.S. government to limit journalism visas China’s state media workers to match the number of visas issued to U.S. government-employed reporters in China.

Elizabeth M. Lynch has a great series at China Law & Policy about this little piece of Cold War rhetoric.

Part 1: What is Wrong With the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act

Part 2The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and Censorship of Foreign Journalists in China

Let’s start with the very premise – that US government employed journalists are the same as Chinese-government employed journalists.

The U.S. has two government-sponsored news agencies in (or trying to get in) China: Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA); the remaining U.S. journalists in China work for private media outlets.  China on the other hand, with its state-owned media, has 13 government-run agencies and over 800 media personnel working in the U.S.

Besides the numbers the real difference is how the two groups of journalists do their jobs.

The US journalists — even though they work for US agencies such as VOA and RFA — have editorial independence. They pursue stories that people want to know about and they do so in a fair and accurate manner. In fact, the VOA charter not only grants but guarantees the editorial independence of the reporters.

And there have been times when the US government has been very very upset with the reports from VOA. But the government cannot do anything about it. No censorship is the rule!

The 800 or so mainland Chinese media workers are limited in what they can report and how they can report it. For example, you will not see any stories about June 4 memorial events in the United States or a serious report on the Falun Gong.

So the equivalency issue is tossed out the window.

And now to the meat of the matter. It is just a bad bill on the face of it. Lynch talks about the problems:

First, it solely focuses on China, giving it the air of a Chinese Exclusion Act. China is not the only country which denies foreign journalists visas – a quick review of the worst countries for journalists on Reporters Without Borders’ website reveals that Burma, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea similarly deny foreign journalists visas. But this Act is exclusively about China.

Second, the rhetoric by the Act’s proponents leads one to believe that they are more motivated by a Cold War mentality than a true concern about U.S. journalists’ access in China. Rep. Rohrabacher’s testimony in support of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is filled with red herrings concerning Confucius Institutes, billboards in Times Square, and the Chinese purchase of AMC movie theaters (in order to flood the US with Chinese propaganda films). Testimony by John Lenczowski focused more on Russian spies in the US Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War than the actual treatment of U.S. journalists in China today.

But it really comes down to a simple question: Do we — the United States — want to act like the censoring, controlling folks that run China? Or do we want to live up to our Constitution (remember the 1st Amendment?) and to our ideals?

Rohrabacher et al are appealing to American’s basest emotions rather than the country’s noblest ideals.

China has used the visa process to keep out journalists.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has documented over the past two years an increasing number of Chinese government threats not to renew a visa or unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process. A 2011 FCCC survey reported that 27 foreign journalists waited four months for a visa renewal. Ordinarily the process is routine and takes a few weeks. FCCC president Peter Ford said 30 days is the norm. And yet 13 journalists were forced to wait six months for a visa. Three others have had their visa applications pending since 2009.

The 2012 survey indicates an even more gloomy situation. The survey, released May 31, showed close to a third of all respondents (36 out of 111 respondents) reported difficulty renewing their journalism visas or obtaining visas for new colleagues.

Is this what Rohrabacher et al really want to US to emulate?

And lastly, the real issue with China is its overall policy of censorship. No “reciprocity” legislation will change that. The Chinese government does not limit its harassment to VOA and RFA reporters. Just ask Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera. She was booted out because  the Chinese government would not renew her visa. And they refused to renew the visa — many believe — because of an Al Jazeera documentary on Chinese labor camps. (Chan was not involved in the production or research of that story.)

Back in 2003 about six French journalists were detained and deported from the USA because of a visa issue. (People may recall at the time the US government was not too happy with the French. Remember “Freedom Fries?”) And the US took a PR pounding for going against its own Constitution over a misinterpretation of the visa laws.

The bottom line is that by being open and true to our ideals we do so much more to chip away at the censorship wall in China. There are Chinese reporters who are pushing the envelope within China. They deserve our support. But an exclusionary law as proposed by Rohrabacher will make it more difficult.

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Filed under Censorship, China, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

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