China relations: The war against journalism

The battle for more U.S. media access to China heated up in the last quarter of 2012 and has no signs of cooling off.

Bloomberg, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have each done pieces looking deeply into Chinese politics, government and business. Much to the chagrin and annoyance of the ruling elite.

The backlash from Beijing has been that news organizations are not getting visasfor their reporters to stay in China or their websites are being blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

Frustration over the way China treats foreign correspondents has been building for some time. In 2011 Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced legislation that would force the State Department to deny visas to all but a handful of the Chinese  working in the U.S. as reporters until China removes the obstacles to American journalists.

The so-called “Chinese Media Reciprocity Act” is an  excellent example of someone lashing out at a situation without really thinking things through.

The Rohrabacher proposal ties visas for Voice of America journalists in China to US visas for the Chinese state-run news organizations. (Hopefully) Without meaning to, the Rohrabacher proposal equates the VOA — and by extension — all U.S. journalists with Chinese journalists.

When China started opening up back in the early 1990s, Shanghai was the place to be for reporters looking to cover the Chinese economic expansion. (I was there 1992-1994 as the spouse of a US diplomat.) Unfortunately, the Chinese government limited the number of visas for journalists allowed to live and operate in China. The government rotated visa issuance so that Japan got one this year, then France got one next year, the UK, the US and so on.

Basically the Chinese government treated the western media (yep, Japan is Western in China’s eyes) as they do their own, as if the news outlets were appendages of the state. I don’t think the  Chinese government has yet to figure out that the Western media are independent of government control. They may know it intellectually, but they still don’t seem to understand it.

Eventually more reporters were able to get into Shanghai but the distrust of Western media by the Chinese leadership remains.

And nowhere is that distrust more evident than in its dealing with Voice of America. As is Rohrabacher’s view, based on the proposed legislation.

Yes, VOA is a U.S. government operation and Xinhua is a Chinese government operation. But that is as far as the similarity goes.

The VOA has a hard-won and strongly defended charter that guarantees its journalists editorial independence. That means that “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

The charter has protected editors and reporters from being forced to change their stories — or drop stories — because of pressure from the State Department or the White House. )I have seen the battles fought and won over the years.) See how many Xinhua reporters stay around if they do stories contrary to what the Chinese Communist party wants.

So the issue comes down to how can or should the US government react to what Beijing is doing.

Drawing a comparison to the US and Chinese reporters is not the way. Robert Daly from the University of Maryland explained the situation to House Judiciary Committee when he testified in hearings on Rohrabacher’s bill.

Two false parallels underlie the retaliatory approach. The first is the implication that [Broadcast Board of Governors] reporters and Chinese journalists are “state-controlled media workers” in the same sense. Equating VOA reporters, whose standards of journalistic integrity are identical to those of American private-sector reporters, with Chinese journalists who are deployed and censored by the Communist Party of China, does VOA a disservice.

The second false parallel in the retaliatory approach is that it considers only the activities of Chinese and American journalists employed by their respective states, ignoring the work of the 200 or so Americans employed by commercial media in China. Because the label government journalist can be applied to all Chinese journalists in America, their numbers should be compared to those of all American journalists working in the PRC, and not just to the number dispatched by the BBG.

Our goal need not be numerical parity. That is not the goal of our media relations with any country. What we seek is an international regime in which all countries are free to send as many journalists to other nations as they desire and can afford. Beijing accredits only two VOA journalists, it is true, but even if an unlimited number were allowed to work in the PRC, VOA would only send six-to-ten reporters to China. Should we then punish China because its financial commitment to foreign reporting and propaganda is growing while ours contracts? If we did, could not other countries reasonably expel American media on the same principle?

The issue remains a sore spot. Here is some additional reading:

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Filed under Censorship, China, Corruption, International News Coverage

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