Media Freedoms Report 2023: ‘Masks Off, Barriers Remain’

Apr 8, 2024

April 8, 2024

BEIJING – The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s latest working conditions report “Masks Off, Barriers Remain” describes another challenging year for international media in 2023. Difficulties persisted in spite of an improved reporting environment due to the end of China’s tough “COVID Zero” policy and related restrictions on movement, restoring reporters’ ability to move around the country relatively freely.

A vast majority of FCCC members welcomed China’s reopening, with 81% saying conditions had improved somewhat in 2023, compared to the pandemic period. However, the return of mobility has also meant more correspondents dealing with the type of heavy-handed responses to independent reporting in the field that long predated the pandemic.

• No respondents said reporting conditions surpassed pre-pandemic conditions.

• Almost all respondents (99%) said reporting conditions in China rarely or never met international reporting standards.

The results of this year’s survey show significant obstacles remain for independent reporting in China, especially in the form of heightened intimidation and surveillance, both in-person and through more sophisticated digital means. Reporting trips during which foreign journalists do not experience problems are the exception.

• Four out of five (81%) respondents said they had experienced interference, harassment, or violence.

• 54% of respondents were obstructed at least once by police or other officials (2022: 56%), 45% encountered obstruction at least once by persons unknown (2022: 36%).

Correspondents are accustomed to receiving such treatment in areas the Chinese authorities consider “politically sensitive”: 85% of journalists who tried to report from Xinjiang in 2023 experienced problems. However, the definition of “sensitive” areas appears to be expanding: An increasing number of journalists encountered issues in regions bordering Russia (79%), Southeast Asian nations (43%) or in ethnically diverse regions like Inner Mongolia (68%).

Technology plays an increasingly important role in the surveillance toolkit deployed by the Chinese authorities to monitor and interfere in the work of the foreign journalist community. For the first time, respondents told the FCCC of authorities using drones to monitor them in the field.

• A majority of respondents had reason to believe the authorities had possibly or definitely compromised their WeChat (81%), their phone (72%), and/or placed audio recording bugs in their office or home (55%).

Despite the opening of China’s borders, foreign media outlets still have difficulty securing journalist visas and residence permits for their journalists to live and work in the country. This problem is especially acute for U.S. media outlets, only one of which succeeded in gaining accreditation in 2023, replacing a journalist who had left China.

• Almost a third (32%) of respondents said their bureau was understaffed because they have been unable to bring in the required number of new reporters.

Official pressure extends beyond foreign correspondents to potential sources. A significant shift in recent years has been observed where academic sources, think tank employees and analysts either decline interviews, request anonymity, or don’t respond at all.

• 82% of respondents reported they had interviews declined by sources who stated they were not permitted to speak to foreign media or required prior permission.

• More than a third (37%) of respondents said reporting trips or interviews already confirmed were canceled last minute because of official pressure (2022: 31%).

Alarmingly, there has been a slight uptick in the reported intimidation of Chinese employees of foreign news bureaus in mainland China – a continuation of a concerning trend already visible in the year before. Chinese colleagues are a crucial asset to foreign news operations. However, they do not enjoy the protection that a foreign passport lends, putting them at significantly higher risk within China to pressure and intimidation from security ministries.

• 49% of respondents indicated their Chinese colleague(s) had been pressured, harassed, or intimidated at least once (2022: 45%; 2021: 40%)

The report is based on a survey of journalists who are members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Conducted in January and February 2024, 101 of 157 correspondent members responded to the survey. They represent news organizations from countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America.

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