Influential voices are now arguing that the US should retaliate against the possible mass expulsion of American journalists from China by imposing similar restrictions on Chinese media operating in the US. Strong reactions to new and increasing restrictions in China are necessary, but this approach risks being counterproductive.
Restricting access for Chinese media in the US plays right into the strongest argument the censorship authorities in China have - that everything they do, other countries do as well. The Snowden revelations have almost completely disabled the ability for foreign governments to criticize online surveillance in China. Expelling Chinese journalists overseas risks repeating the same pattern. The Chinese Propaganda Department would know exactly how to spin this. Do we really want to give them that opportunity?
There is a better approach. Instead of restricting press freedom in the US, why not increase freedom in China?
Over the past few years we have seen individual journalists denied visas to work in China and fellow journalists and media organizations operating in China expressed their displeasure with that news. But the response was muted compared to reactions to the current, unprecedented, tribulations of the two dozen China-based Bloomberg and New York Times reporters waiting for their visas to be renewed.
Regardless of whether or not these journalists get expelled, those that remain need to strongly defend the ones who are not here anymore. The work of the censorship authorities is only effective if they can divide the censored. If foreign journalists refuse to be divided, censorship will fail.
Each foreign publication with a presence in China should make it their principle to protest reporting restrictions at every opportunity. Media organisations should make it clear that they disagree with the restrictions when they talk to officials at all levels, when they attend press conferences and even when they visit the visa office. They should make it equally clear that they will not compromise journalistic integrity by self-censoring. These protests should also be published prominently on media websites, especially in the China and Chinese language sections.
The authorities would rather control than expel all foreign media. If media companies make it clear that they refuse to be controlled, the authorities will give up. If you budge, as is the case for Bloomberg, the authorities are likely to expand restrictions.
The Chinese government never makes official declarations as to why an individual reporter was expelled or denied entry or why a particular website was blocked. But in each instance, there is usually an offending piece that can be identified. Media websites that remain unblocked in China should, in solidarity with the restricted and as principle, republish the offending pieces.
Melissa Chan was likely expelled because of her reporting on black jails. The New York Times websites were blocked in China likely because of the reports on the wealth of Wen Jiabao's family. The appropriate reaction is for all other media to cover these topics more extensively and to re-publish the blocked stories on their own, unblocked websites. With the permission of the New York Times, the Wen Jiabao story could have been made available on media websites that are not blocked in China. This demonstration will show the authorities that foreign media in China are acting in solidarity and that they refuse to be divided.
The censorship authorities do not want to block all information. Their strategy is to divide reporters and media organizations so that they can selectively decide what information should and should not be disseminated. Media organisations in China need to uphold the principle of freedom of speech by not giving the Chinese authorities the flexibility to make this choice.
Technology can support these efforts and we have already proven that we can make content available to readers in China in a way that the authorities cannot control. China has tried to block websites that we have unblocked and have failed. Adjustments can be made to deny the authorities the ability to selectively block content. Mobile apps can deliver unblockable content to users in China.
Using technology to provide unfettered access to news in China is not just an opportunity but an obligation for any news organization that believes in freedom of speech.