IRISH TIMES: Mr Zhu's invitation comes with caveat

By Miriam Donohoe

Monday, September 10, 2001

ASIA LETTER: One of the biggest talking points arising from last week's high-profile visit to Ireland of the Chinese Premier, Mr Zhu Rongji, was the free holiday he offered Irish journalists.

Public relations have never been the XX Party's strong point.

But in a move that caught everybody by surprise, a clearly-rattled Mr Zhu answered questions on human rights by inviting reporters to China, all expenses paid, to see the situation for themselves.

What Mr Zhu did not tell the travel-hungry media, however, was that journalists taking him up on his generous offer would encounter restrictions on their reporting of human rights issues.

Coincidentally, on the day that Mr Zhu launched his public relations exercise, all correspondents in Beijing were circulated with the updated Handbook for Foreign Journalists in China by the International Press Centre, which operates under the auspices of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The booklet, featuring a nice glossy cover with a picture of the Great Wall, contains the rules and regulations governing all overseas correspondents working in this country.

A journalist is not allowed travel from Beijing to any of China's 30 or so provinces, or autonomous regions, without first receiving the permission of the local Foreign Affairs Office.

You must outline who you want to interview, the questions you want to ask and then give the dates for your proposed stay.

Last month, I was refused permission by the Henan Foreign Affairs Office to travel to write a story on the AIDS epidemic, which has ripped through Wenlou village as a result of the operation of illegal blood banks.

The officials tell me they are "too busy" to receive me and keep assuring me they have the AIDS problem in hand. Three follow-up phone calls since, and my request has still been denied.

Persistence does pay off sometimes.

After making several requests I was allowed into Fujian Province last February to cover a story on illegal immigration and snakeheads. However, I was accompanied at all times during my visit and was only brought where the waiban, the Foreign Ministry contact, wanted.

Last March I participated in an organised press trip to Jilin province to do a story on village elections. The elections took place in the local school, but afterwards foreign correspondents were refused permission to go downtown to talk to the locals. We were told there "was no time".

The handbook tells me there are two districts in Beijing which I should live, Chaoyang or Dongcheng. If I need staff (cook, housekeeper, driver, translator etc), I should employ them through the state-controlled Diplomatic Services Bureau.

I am constantly hearing that DSB staff report back to the authorities on the activities of journalists. Colleagues also tell me that my phone is tapped and my apartment bugged. I have no proof of either.

The handbook also offers some advice to correspondents about the way they approach their work.

Article 14 says: "Foreign journalists and the permanent offices of foreign news agencies shall observe journalistic ethics and shall not distort facts, fabricate rumour, or carry out news coverage by foul means."

In addition, the handbook advises, we should not engage in "activities which are incompatible with our status or tasks, or which endanger China's national security, unity or community and public interests".

This appears to translate: don't travel unofficially, don't criticise the political powers and don't go interviewing people [..] - such as those in Falun Gong.


The reality is if Irish journalists come here to do a story on Falun Gong, they will not be allowed interview any of the movement's members, or given free access to the labour camps where thousands are detained.

They will not be given official figures as to the number of executions this year as this is "classified" information. Nor will they be able to openly interview Roman Catholic Church members about religious repression. […]

To be fair, my day-to-day dealings with the International Press Centre and Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing and in Chinese provinces have been very positive. They are for the most part pleasant, hard-working and eager to please. They are not the ones who make the rules.

With the passage of time, and the increased focus on China following the decision to award Beijing the 2008 Olympics, the authorities will come under increasing pressure to loosen the rules.

For the moment, the urge to keep tabs on journalists remains as strong as ever. The notion of a free press is still an alien concept.

But nice try all the same, Mr Zhu.

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