China is using the COVID-19 pandemic as “yet another way to control journalists”, a press group said Monday, warning that Beijing has introduced extra surveillance and restrictions for health reasons as tools to frustrate reporters’ work.
Although the country has largely brought the coronavirus outbreak under control since it emerged in late 2019, Beijing has raced to promote an official narrative centered on its efficient measures and stamped out criticism about its early handling of the pandemic.
“As China’s propaganda machine struggled to regain control of the narrative around this public health disaster, foreign press outlets were repeatedly obstructed in their attempts to cover the pandemic,” said The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) in its annual report.
“China has used the pandemic as yet another way to control journalists.”
Strict COVID-19 measures have been regularly used to block or threaten reporters, the media group said, with correspondents “forced to abandon reporting trips after being told to leave or be quarantined”.
Some 42 percent of respondents said they had been made to leave a place or denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no risk.
The FCCC said journalists were asked to comply with measures that didn’t apply to other people, and that the introduction of coronavirus checkpoints and contact tracing apps have “created additional opportunities for Chinese authorities to gather data and surveil foreign journalists and their sources.”
Sources like medical staff in the central city of Wuhan - where COVID-19 first surfaced - were interrogated by authorities or warned against accepting interviews, reporters said.
For a third straight year, none of the 150 respondents said working conditions improved.
As relations worsened between China and several western countries, there has also been “the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago” in 2020, the FCCC said.
In the second half of the year, foreign journalists became “pawns in a diplomatic spat” when state security officers told two Australian media correspondents, they were barred from leaving the country, the report flagged.
The pair sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions before they fled the country.
Since September, authorities stopped issuing new press cards to US news organizations’ correspondents, as relations worsened between the two countries, it added.
The survey also warned that foreign news outlets have been targeted in disinformation campaigns by state media, including claims that their interviewees were paid actors.