China falls behind as world marks Press Freedom Day

Chinese newspaper at the centre of anti-censorship protests appeared on newsstands on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

Ranked number two according to size of economy but 179th for press freedom out of 196 countries. China has made great leaps forward in economic terms, but it falls way behind in terms of freedom of press.

In its latest country report on China, Freedom House reports that: "conditions for foreign media in the country remained highly restrictive, and harassment and violent assaults against foreign reporters escalated during the year (2012)."

This year a German TV crew were filming near a so called 'cancer village', where pollution is blamed for a rash of serious illness. As they left they were involved in a car chase, a vehicle full of plain clothes thugs forced them to stop, their windscreen was smashed. It was daytime on a busy road. No one intervened.

A farmer ploughs on his field beside a chemical factory in a "cancer village" in Tianjin, China. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

A few weeks later, we were filming for a report ahead of the new Prime Minister Li Keqiang's appointment, near where the German TV crew had been attacked. We were surprised that just five minutes after reaching the outskirts of the nearest town; we were being tailed. My Chinese colleague sighed and said "This is getting worse, the worst I've ever known it".

We started to speculate about the kind of surveillance we are under. Are they tracking our phones? The car number plate? When a colleague with his experience and knowledge start to despair then things must be going downhill.

As soon as we are filming outside we know we will encounter some kind of state harassment, usually on a minor level, but interference of some kind.

ITV News China Correspondent Angus Walker at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

I've lost count of the times I've had to show my press card to the police. Now, this happens in the UK too; for example every time I did a 'piece to camera' outside MI5 HQ, the police would arrive and ask what we were doing. In China however, it's not just filming outside government buildings.

Last month we were covering the earthquake in Sichuan. Motorbikes proved to be the only way to get into the worst affected areas because roads were blocked by landslides and traffic jams of rescue vehicles. Spotted by police officers, we were chased by a police car and pulled over.

A Chinese national flag planted on debris in Longmen. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

Two very excited officers leapt out and ordered myself and my cameraman into the car. We were driven back to a police checkpoint. No one gave me a clear explanation as to why we had been singled out. All traffic was being allowed to flow past the checkpoint, all except us. Eventually, after a vigorous discussion with two government officials who'd arrived, we were allowed to go.

That evening, two hours drive away, in a completely different city, police officers knocked on my Chinese colleague's hotel room door. What were we reporting on? How long were we staying? We all had to show our press cards and passports. Again no clear explanation, just a reminder that they know where we are.

The Communist Party chief of Guangdong province stepped in to mediate a stand-off over censorship at a Chinese newspaper. Credit: Reuters/ Bobby Yip

The Foreign Ministry imposes conditions on foreign reporters which are aimed at instilling self-censorship. Every year a journalist's visa needs to be renewed and as December approaches foreign reporters start to ask the question "have you had your 'chat' yet?".

A few critical stories, interviews with dissidents, or worst of all, a trip to Chinese controlled areas of Tibet and you could be in for a hard time getting your visa renewed. Right now, two well known US media organisations have been having difficulties getting visas renewed or issued.

Last year, both ran reports investigating the family fortunes of China's new President and outgoing Prime Minister. While corruption is publicly being tackled, according to the state media, peering into the private financial affairs of the leaders is an example of an area that is definitely off limits for domestic media.

The Freedom House report suggests conditions are just as bad for Chinese journalists.

Chinese Communist Party leaders use control of the media to propagate positive views of the party and government...the aim is to pre-empt less favourable coverage by bloggers, foreign journalists and the more aggressive commercial news outlets.

Hong Kong journalists march with placards in support of press freedom in September 2009. Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

One journalist working for Chinese state media spoke to me on condition of anonymity: "There are directives telling what we can and can't write, it's also largely about how an issue is covered. We cannot say the 'Syrian regime' for example."

Chinese journalists have always tried to nervously avoid the subject when I talk to them about censorship. They admit they are banned from covering some stories altogether: certain dissidents are never to be mentioned or named; even reports about their appearances in court rarely appear.

Most Chinese reporters when talking privately describe the self-censorship that exists, with constant and strict government control a reporter doesn't find it very difficult to realise what issues or stories are deemed "too sensitive". A useful description which also neatly sums up the government's attitude.

It may be a nuclear power, be close to becoming the world's largest economy and have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council but China's rulers remain fearful of the power of the press.