Foreign Journalists in China Call for More Press Freedom
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING ― A Harvard University student recently visited China for the first time and he was surprised because it was not the China he had expected.
``Beijing was quite different to the mental image I had of the city before. It was considerably more modern and progressive than the stock footage shown in Western media leads me to believe,'' said David Mulrooney, a doctoral student majoring in English literature.
``For example, whenever there is a news story about China in the U.S., it is accompanied by images of people on bicycles. While I certainly saw plenty of bicycles in Beijing, I also saw large numbers of new, modern cars on an impressive highway system,'' Mulrooney added.
Western media often portray China from an unenviable angle, including its human rights, one-party despotism, freedom of the press, Tibet and unfair trade. Chinese complain that the reporting is predominantly negative without being assuaged by coverage of the positive aspects of China's recent development.
Perhaps, the problem partly lies in how foreign journalists in China ― who write about China for the international readers ― experience it.
A recent survey by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) shows that 40 percent of 163 respondents said that since the beginning of this year, they've experienced some form of interferences, including intimidation of sources, detentions, surveillance, official reprimands (from the Chinese Foreign Ministry), and even violence against them, their staff and sources ― all amounting to 157 cases.
China also looms large on the radar screen of the Reporters Without Borders, a free press watchdog. Just within last month, it released a series of statements, denouncing China for preparing foreign journalists data files and called for the release of 33 imprisoned journalists.
The Paris-based organization also sent an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), saying ``the organizers of the Beijing Olympics and the Chinese security apparatus have decided to control journalists very closely before and during the games.'' The group again called China ``the world's biggest prison for journalists.''
Beijing bristled at the Paris-based group for its ``consistent attacks on China.'' Yet it is also making efforts to direct their attention on the improvement side.
``The conditions for foreign journalists to gather news in China have been improving,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said. The official Xinhua News Agency also said the country is ``cautiously but resolutely on the road to press freedom.''
Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing bureau chief and former head of FCCC, says many foreign journalists still experience harassment, especially when they go out of big cities to do a story. He, however, gives his nod on the improvement side. ``It has improved a lot for the last few years.''
Yet just like two mismatched celestial entities, Mars and Venus, the foreign-journalists-and-China couple still have some issues to sort out, while still blaming each other. Namely, China blames foreign journalists for feeding ``prejudice" against the county. Foreign journalists blame China for not embracing the international practice of fee press.
According to FlorCruz, the problem is that both sides have different and perhaps ``unrealistic'' expectations. ``What you have here is that the Chinese have upped their level, but not quite to the level of international norm. And that's why I think there are still a lot of disappointments and frustrations on the part of journalists. And the Chinese are also frustrated, believing that it's been improving its ways of doing things and yet foreign journalists are still unhappy,'' FlorCruz said.
FlorCruz yet believes that China should upgrade itself to the international practice of free press as it was the pledge it had made to IOC six years ago when it had won the Olympics bid.
Scott Kronick, president of the PR company Ogilvy in China, who advises the Chinese government, says the couple has ― no surprise! ― a communication problem. While acknowledging that there is ``clearly an improvement over the past," he advises China to be more communicative.
After all, FlorCruz and Kronick, believe China is doing ``a lot better" than before. They say we should give it a little more time.
``I think people expect China to change overnight. I think that's an unrealistic expectation. This country has already done a phenomenal job of changing in a very short period of time,'' Kronick says.
FlorCruz agrees. ``You also have to know where China is coming from. What it was like 30 yeas ago. What was possible then, what was not possible then. With that comparative perspective, you will appreciate some of the changes we are seeing and enjoying. I think we can keep on prodding China to make changes. And I think that helps. But we cannot expect instant changes,'' the veteran journalist who has lived in China for 36 years said.
Eventually, FlorCruz envisions more press freedom and openness in China. ``It's not quite what many foreign journalists expect. But it's getting better. It's moving, at least, in the right direction.''
Sunny Lee is a writer/journalist based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.