Wall Street Journal Editorial Proposes Denying Visas to Chinese Journalists

There’s been a recent spate of intimidation against foreign journalists in China. Now, a Wall Street Journal editorial encourages other countries to respond by denying visas to Chinese journalists:

Visas and accreditation for Chinese state-run media workers to enter other countries should be contingent on an end to state-sponsored thuggery.

The Journal’s position aligns with a proposal before Congress to revoke the visas of nearly all the 800 or so Chinese journalists in the U.S. The bill would require that Chinese journalists’ U.S. visas be revoked so that there are no more than the number of Chinese visas issued U.S. government-employed journalists, which is currently exactly  two.

The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act (H.R. 2899) is sponsored by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from southern California. At a June 20 hearing, Congressman Rohrabacher testified before the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement that the Act seeks to dissuade the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from restricting and obstructing foreign journalists and news in China.

But the Journal’s position and the bill are at odds with some journalists views that denying Chinese journalists’ visas would cast doubt on America’s commitment to freedom of the press and risk sparking a visa war with China, which could result in the expulsion of Americans working for commercial media in China and impair American press coverage of China.

My take is that Congress has already granted the State Department the power to grant or refuse to issue visas to journalists on the “basis of reciprocity.” And the State Department’s reticence to use its power as radically as H.R. 2899 is probably a good thing.

Intimidation and Restrictions on Foreign Journalists in China

The watchdog group Reporters without Borders ranks China 174 out of 179 countries in its 2011-2012 worldwide index of press freedom.

Restrictions on journalists employed by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are the focus of the proposed law. BBG is an independent federal agency with the mission of broadcasting news about the U.S. and the world to audiences overseas. BBG supervises Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and other broadcasting organizations. China jams VOA and RFA’s short-wave radio broadcasts, satellite TV signals, and websites. Only two VOA reporters have been issued visas to work from China. Their reporting activities have been restricted, and they’ve been roughed up. The Chinese government has also consistently rejected visa applications for RFA staff since 1998, according to testimony by Nick Zahn of the Heritage Foundation.

There are also about 200 Americans employed by commercial media in China, Robert Daly of the University of Maryland told the Subcommittee. The State Department’s 2011 human rights report on China discusses violence and harassment of foreign journalists:

Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported that local employees of foreign news agencies were also subject to official harassment and intimidation.

On February 27, at least six foreign journalists were beaten by plainclothes security officers in Beijing while covering anticipated gatherings and a related security crackdown in the busy commercial district of Wangfujing in downtown Beijing. Plainclothes officers dragged other reporters and photographers into alleys or shops and erased images from their cameras. Later, security officials made nighttime visits to a few Western journalists in their apartments, warning them to behave cooperatively or risk losing their work permits.

According to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC), one of five foreign respondents surveyed experienced visa threats or visa delays. Some reporters were explicitly told that issuance of their visa was related to the content of their reporting. Among the correspondents surveyed, 70 percent experienced interference or harassment during the year; 40 percent said their sources were harassed, detained, or called in for questioning for interacting with foreign journalists; and 33 percent said their Chinese assistants encountered pressure from officials or experienced harassment.

Elizabeth M. Lynch’s articles at China Law & Policy have more on the travails of foreign journalists. Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post has been waiting for a visa since 2009. American reporter Melissa Chan was expelled in May 2012 for violating unspecified rules and regulations.  And recently the FCCC’s website has stopped reporting on such incidents out of fear their operations could be shuttered by the government.

Most recently, FCCC released a statement that it’s “extremely concerned by a number of recent incidents in which international journalists have been threatened, harassed and even beaten while gathering news in China.” These include:

  • On July 28th, a Shanghai based journalist from Japan’s Asahi Shimbun was beaten by police in Nantong while covering a demonstration. His equipment, worth several thousand dollars, was taken and has not been returned.
  • On August 10th a reporter for Hong Kong’s Asia Television was assaulted by plain clothes police outside a courthouse in Hefei as he filmed members of the public being arrested.
  • On August 11th, in Henan province a television crew from ARD German television was attacked by a mob, accused of being spies and forcibly detained for 9 hours at a chemical factory before police escorted them to their vehicles.
  • On August 13th two reporters from Poland and the United States reporting in Ordos were followed and intimidated by three cars and at least eight individuals in the middle of the night.

And, don’t forget, notes the state-controlled Global Times,  that “Chinese journalists often face a worse situation than their foreign counterparts in China.”

Chinese State-Controlled Media in the U.S.

In the U.S., the 800 or so Chinese journalist visa holders work for 13 government-run press agencies. Among them, Xinhua Press Agency has a 24-hour TV broadcast service headquartered in New York City’s Times Square. Xinhua also broadcasts on an AM radio station based in Texas. China Central Television (CCTV) has a studio in Washington, DC. And China Daily, the government’s English paper, has a U.S. circulation peaking at 170,000 copies per day.

But John Lenczowski, a former State Department cold warrior, sounded of hyperbole to me when he testified that “most” Chinese holding U.S. journalist visas “are not real journalists” but instead “political counter-intelligence officers … engaged in influence operations here in this country.” He went on to say that “the number of Chinese media representatives in this country who are actually writing and editing stories is miniscule…. They’re engaging in activities that exceed the proper bounds of media representation.”  They “attempt to penetrate” groups of Chinese dissidents in the U.S. to “harass” them and “counter their messages.”

Mark Bourrie, a former Xinhua contributor in Ottawa, corroborates Lenczowski’s claim. He accuses Xinhua of using parliamentary accreditation to gather news not for publication but instead for government eyes only:

“They tried to get me … to write a report for the Chinese government on the Dalai Lama using my press credentials as a way of getting access I wouldn’t otherwise have,” Mr. Bourrie … said…. He alleges there are individuals within Xinhua who are acting as spies, seeking to “monitor [practitioners of the spiritual movement] Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and any other critics of the Chinese government in Canada….

[In another assignment] he was asked to determine not only the identities of those who protested Chinese president Hu Jintao’s arrival at the G20 Summit in Toronto, but also where those protesters were staying.

As an aside, if accusations hold up that journalists with “I” visas are engaged in counter-intelligence, then that’s a violation of status, which should lead to deportation and future visa ineligibility for the journalists involved. It would also be a sound basis for the State Department to refuse visas to other journalists employed by the entity that ordered such activities.

The Law Could Spark a Visa War

At the June 20th hearing, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D., Silicon Valley) pointed out that the BBG has no interest in placing more than 20 or so journalists in China. So even if China were to throw open its doors completely to BBG, the bill’s requirement that  Chinese journalists from state-controlled media “not exceed” BBG journalists would mean that all but 20 of China’s 800 or so journalists would have their visas revoked.

The Committee to Protect Journalists warns that passage of the bill could lead to an all out visa war, resulting in China denying a greater number of visas and exacerbating an already tense situation for foreign journalists in China:

[I]ntroducing restrictions on Chinese journalists in the U.S. is more likely to goad Beijing to retaliate than redress an imbalance. We would not be surprised if, in response, China increased pressure and harassment of American and international journalists working in the country, regardless of the degree of their state affiliation. This could worsen an already precarious situation for foreign correspondents in China.

Picture the Headlines, “U.S. Expels Chinese Journalists”

Robert Daly of the University of Maryland testified before the House that the bill would cast doubt on America’s commitment to the free flow of ideas. Picture, he says, headlines around the world that read, “U.S. Expels China’s Journalists.”

Similarly, Lynch at the China Law & Policy website asks, “is this who we want to be? A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States…. By essentially eradicating the Chinese press from U.S. shores, the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act undermines our goals.” Lynch also quotes FCCC’s president, Peter Ford, who says that the organization does “not support efforts to restrict press freedom in one country in an effort to improve press freedom in another. We remain committed to freedom of the press.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” Ginzberg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966). A wholesale expulsion of Chinese journalists is censorship, and this isn’t the message the U.S. should be sending to China.

In addition, although press freedoms are curtailed in China, as detailed in the State Department’s 2011 human rights report, even according to the CIA the media there are “becoming more autonomous and diverse.” This is in part because media organizations are becoming more market oriented and need to appeal to audiences with growing sophistication. And perhaps in part because some Chinese journalists who travel to the U.S. like the press freedoms they witness.

A visa war would also impair the ability of the American press to cover China.

Current Law Already Requires Reciprocity

The proposed law is really an implicit attack on the State Department’s handling of foreign relations with China.

At no time during the Congressional hearing was it mentioned that current law already requires that visas be issued to journalists on the “basis of reciprocity.” INA § 101(a)(15)(I). The “I” visa for information media representatives is available only if the applicant’s government “grants reciprocity for similar privileges to representatives of such a medium having home offices in the United States.” 22 C.F.R. § 41.52(a). The State Department asks its consular officers to “report promptly to the Department any limitations imposed by the foreign government concerned on the employment of representatives of U.S. information media … so that the Department may ensure … reciprocity.” 9 FAM 41.52 N10.

Currently, reciprocity exists between the U.S. and “all foreign countries.” USCIS AFM Ch. 34.4(a). In other words, the State Department has not exercised its power to refuse visas to journalists on the grounds that their country does not reciprocate. No State Department official testified at the hearing to explain. (Were they invited?)

Personally, I prefer the current law giving the State Department the power to apply a surgical scalpel to the issue of reciprocity rather than the  proposed Act’s flailing axe. In any case, the House bill doesn’t seem likely to be on the verge of passage. It’s got only seven co-sponsors–all Republicans–and no related bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Take It Up with the State Department

So should the Wall Street Journal plead with the State Department Chinese journalists’ U.S. visa applications to be denied? It seems to me that that FCCC and the Committee to Protect Journalists have the stronger argument.

Besides, Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO (and recipient of federal funds) argues that the best steps to protect journalists abroad are U.S. diplomatic engagement over press freedom and funding training for journalists in investigative reporting, cyber and physical security, and effective monitoring and advocacy techniques.

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