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The wrong approach to Chinese media restrictions

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By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator

The Committee to Protect Journalists is watching with concern the progress of H.R. 2899, the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act of 2011, which was under discussion Wednesday in front of the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. The bill seeks to reduce the number of visas available to journalists (and their families) working in the United States for 13 Chinese state-controlled publications. The aim is to pressure Beijing into allowing more Voice of America reporters into China; VOA staffers tell us that they are allowed only two China visas to cover a country of more than 1.3 billion people.

CPJ's many objections to China's media policies, including its approach to foreign media, are well documented. But we don't believe that the best response to press freedom restrictions in China is to implement press freedom restrictions in the U.S. We don't approve of the use of specific visas for journalists in the first place, although we recognize that it is a widespread practice. In an ideal world, we would see as many journalists as possible in all countries, moving as freely as possible across borders.

And there is a complicating factor:  Technically, all media organizations in China are state-related in one form or another, even though many operate with a surprising degree of financial and editorial autonomy. Starting tit-for-tat visa restrictions might result in hundreds of other Chinese news organizations being added to the 13 which the bill rightly identifies as official Chinese media; it's an accurate list, but it's not a complete one. If China doesn't agree to at least 13 visas for American government-related media, what is to stop an escalation of the number of restrictions coming from the American side?

China says it accredits 650 foreign journalists in total -- not just from the United States. (This doesn't include freelancers; China will accredit correspondents only if they are formally attached to a media organization.) International journalists seeking to travel to China often face delays or rejection of their visa applications, something CPJ has experienced first-hand. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, CPJ apparently fell afoul of the government by releasing its report "Falling Short: Olympic Promises Go Unfulfilled As China Falters on Press Freedom" at a press conference at a prominent business hotel in the center of Beijing. A few of our people who were involved have not been able to get back into the country since, either as journalists or tourists. We have never been given explanations for the rejection of our many visa applications. 

But introducing restrictions on Chinese journalists in the U.S. is more likely to goad Beijing to retaliate than redress an imbalance. We would not be surprised if, in response, China increased pressure and harassment of American and international journalists working in the country, regardless of the degree of their state affiliation. This could worsen an already precarious situation for foreign correspondents in China.

Furthermore, the bill calls for revocation, within 30 days of its enactment, of "a sufficient number of [U.S.] visas issued to state-controlled media workers from the People's Republic of China so that the remaining number of such visas does not exceed the number of visas issued by the People's Republic of China to nationals of the United States" who are American government-related media workers. We take that to mean the United States will only match the two visas doled out to VOA. The State Department puts the total number of U.S. visas issued to all Chinese journalists and their families around 860 for fiscal year 2011. Would there be an ugly scenario of mass expulsion of hundreds of Chinese journalists and their families from the United States? 

In a blog in January, around the time of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the U.S., CPJ argued that China's media policies are more than stand-alone human rights issues. Media restrictions in China make the country a poor candidate for a mature partnership on economic or security issues, and must be addressed if the two countries are to move forward. The visa imbalance between China and the United States does seem unfair, and should be dealt with frankly and forcefully in the context of those many shortcomings. But the U.S., or any country, should not threaten to drive possibly hundreds of journalists from within its borders for any reason. Such a move might feed some people's sense of justice, but would be short-sighted, counterproductive, and contradict one of the United States' cornerstone liberties. The Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement should find a better way to solve this problem.

Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ's Asia Program, has reported across the continent for news outlets such as CNN and Asiaweek. He has led numerous CPJ missions, including ones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

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