Foreign Journalists React To New Regulations

(Southern Weekend)  Foreign Journalists React to New Regulations on News Gathering.  By Ma Changbo and Li Danting.  January 31, 2007.

[in translation]

On February 1, it was one full month after <The Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period> went into effect.

Although it is hard to draw too many conclusions in one month, there are certain special thoughts from foreign correspondents (including those reporters from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan who were also covered by related regulations).

On the first day of 2007, four Xinhua reporters were gathering news in Tiananmen Square, but they did not see foreign correspondents.

According to Xinhua's report that day, "People are speculating that many of the foreign journalists were attracted to go elsewhere to 'dig up' news under the new regulations."

The new regulations in that Xinhua report was announced on December 1, 2006.  These were <The Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period> signed by State Council Premier Wen Jiabao.

According to these regulations, between January 1, 2007 and October 17, 2008, foreign journalists can gather news with the consent of the unit being interviewed and without being required to apply at the foreign affairs bureau.  Also, news gathering at various outside provinces used to require an application at the foreign affairs bureau, but this will no longer be necessary -- this implies that foreign correspondents are free to travel to the different provinces to gather information.

On the same day, Reuters reporter Benjamin Lim and a colleague conducted interviews in Beijing and Inner Mongolia, and the reports were published on the same day.

According to Xinhua, this was the first report under the new regulations in which a foreign correspondent published news in an outside province without having to apply to the foreign affairs bureau.

"The new regulations are an improvement, but it will have to withstand the test of time."  Benjamin Lim told our reporter.

Xinhua also reported that on January 1, other foreign correspondents traveled to Guangdong and Shandong to gather news on a village director being recalled by villagers, a mass incident and a legal case.

Actually, attention was also drawn to <The Regulations on Reporting Activities in Mainland China by Taiwan Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period> and <The Regulations on Reporting Activities in Mainland China by Hong Kong/Macau Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period> released on the same day by the Taiwan Affairs Office and the Hong Kong/Macau Affairs Office of the State Council.

These three aforementioned regulations are basically similar.  Their common spirit is to relax the regulations on foreign journalists, Taiwan journalists and Hong Kong/Macau journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the preparatory period.

The key part about all three regulations lies in this sixth article: "Only the consent of the interviewed unit/individual is required."

This implies two things.  First, the aforementioned reporters do not need to apply to their supervisory departments in order to conduct an interview.  Second, the regulations allow them to leave their base to go to other provinces to conduct interviews.

"According to the previous regulations, we were required to obtain the consent of the local foreign affairs bureau before we can gather information in provinces outside of our base.  Under normal circumstances, it would take two to three days, or even several weeks, to receive an answer.  Sometimes, they might say, 'We're really busy right now.  Please contact us later.'  For the news business in which every second counted, it was a nightmare.  The news cannot wait."  CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz said.

Also, it used to be very complicated for foreign correspondents to enter Xinjiang or Tibet to gather information.  Foreign Ministry news spokesperson Liu Jianchao said in response to a question at the press conference of December 1, 2006: "The new regulations are applicable to all provinces in China."

Actually, the situation may even be more lax in practice.  Liu Jianchao said: "Foreign correspondents enjoy the same rights as other foreigners in China."  This meant that they can just go to a local province before deciding what to gather news on.

For Hong Kong/Macau reporters, there is something else.  "For the Hong Kong reporter who was not regularly posted in mainland China, it used to be necessary to go first through the China Liaison Office of the central government based in the Hong Kong SAR for permission to gather news in mainland China.  This will no longer be necessary.  This will make a huge difference to the Hong Kong media."  Ming Pao's Beijing-based reporter Chan Wing-kai said.

"The simplification for reporting activities" works most obviously for Taiwan reporters.  According to the 1996 <Regulations Concerning Taiwan Reporters Gathering News on Mainland China>, they had to be approved first by the Taiwan Affairs Office.  Then they would have to apply for a press card from the China National Journalists Association before they are qualified to gather news on mainland China.

"The Taiwan Affairs Office in Shanghai and Beijing usually do not pay too many attention to the reporters.  But the Taiwan Affairs Offices in other places tend to be very careful.  They will accompany the reporters during their interviews."  A reporter from the United Daily News group who used to be posted on mainland China said.  "Financial newspapers have it easier, because many places in mainland China want the exposure in order to attract investments.  Variety media may feel inhibited."

Another key point in the new regulations is that foreign, Hong Kong/Macau and Taiwan correspondents may hire Chinese workers to assist in their reporting activities.

Most of the foreign correspondents interviewed by us said that it was an improvement for them when the new regulations allow them to go to other provinces freely.

One example was that on January 2, there was a cash-carrying armored-car robbery in Taipei city.  The Taiwan police investigated and found that the driver/guard Li Hanyang was suspected of involvement.  Li subsequently entered Yunnan province on mainland China.  On January 9, Li was arrested by the local police there.

"As soon as the news went out, the Taipei headquarters immediately called our mainland-based correspondents and told them to hurry out to Yunnan as quickly as possible.  My colleague went there directly."

The mainland-based Taiwan TV reporter said: "All three Taiwan television stations on mainland went there.  Some went from Beijing and some went from Shanghai.  Previously, it was complicated if you wanted to leave your base.  The new regulations have been favorable to the timeliness of our reporting."

"From the results of my reporting activities over the past few days, the new regulations work better at the higher levels.  In Beijing, when we interview certain scholars and officials in government departments, they all knew about the new regulations," said Ming Pao reporter Chan Wing-kai.

"Previously, I had to apply to interview officials and scholars in government departments.  It may take going back and forth for a couple of weeks.  I was recently reporting on the fifth anniversary of China's entry into the WTO.  I just called over and they said it was okay to talk.  Then I just went over there," Chan said.

CNN reporter Jaime FlorCruz said that workers in their organization have sent through varying experiences.  "Generally speaking, it is more convenient under the new regulations."

But he said that the implementation of the new regulations differs depending on the locale.  "When we go to gather news outside of Beijing, the local government officials demand that we obtain permission from the central government -- even though the new regulations say that we don't have to do that.  When we tell them about the new regulations, they reply, 'We've never heard about it.'"

"We are now facing the problem of implementation."  He said, "They local government and ordinary citizens need to be aware that there is no more problem being interviewed and filmed by us."

Apart from the central government having to inform local government officials, the habits of the interviewees are also an obstacle.  Ming Pao reporter Chan Wing-kai said that they are especially careful about overseas media.  It will take time to change this internalized mindset.

"Recently, I interviewed an official scholar in the central party department.  He was quite happy to be interviewed at first.  Afterwards, he sought his supervisor's opinion.  His supervisor said that even though the regulations are known, it is better to be careful.  So he told me to withdraw the article."  Chen said, "The old regulations had a huge impact.  Of course, we said that we understood.  We believe that this is a process."

The Xinhua reporter said that after the regulations were announced, America's NBC television network has decided to send many reporters to China for the Olympics coverage.  Associated Press intends to hire a large number of Chinese employees on top of the original base of 25 reporters.

Among the three sets of regulations, <The Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period> was considered the key, whereas the other two regulations about Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan correspondents are the extensions of that.

In 1980, China permitted foreign media to establish bureaus in China but the foreign correspondents were not allowed to gather news freely.  This became the basis by which the outside world criticized China.

Under the new regulations, the space of activity for foreign correspondents has obviously been expanded.  Although the new regulations came under the guise of "Olympics reporting," it is nevertheless regarded as a landmark event in the opening of China to the outside world.

"Over the past ten years, the economic development of China has made it more open.  This is a matter of time.  For the Chinese government, it needs the right moment to make big changes.  Right now, it is a good moment," said Jaime FlorCruz.

Qinghua University professor of journalism Li Xiguang told our reporter that the Olympics will have a landmark significance for foreign correspondents.  "It means a lot to use the moment of the Olympics to show the harmony of China, raise its international image and expand media diplomacy."

But Li said that certain government officials have lacked knowledge about the business rules in modern media.  These regulations may bring certain risks for certain news reports.

According to the notice, the new regulations on reporting activities will end on October 17, 2008.  The Chinese government have not said whether the regulations will be extended.  But the State Information Office director Cao Wu said at the December 28, 2006 press conference that if these temporary regulations prove to be good after more than a year of implementation, "I think that a good policy should not be changed."  But he stated that this was only his personal view.

The common opinion is that China is "testing the waters" about how to manage foreign news during the Olympics.  In this sense, the central government is more enlightened than the local governments.