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Cleaning staff wear protective suits to protect against COVID-19 as they clean the working space at the media centre of the Big Air Shougang, a competition venue for freestyle skiing and snowboard, on Jan. 30, 2022, ahead of the Beijing Olympics.FABRIZIO BENSCH/Reuters

Reporting on China is becoming ever more difficult because of government intimidation and efforts to “block and discredit independent reporting,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China warned in a report Monday.

Hundreds of journalists are flying to the Chinese capital this week to cover the Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday. Unlike in 2008, when Beijing last played host to an Olympics, visiting reporters will not be able to travel around either the country or the city itself, but will instead be confined to a “closed loop” bubble, with limited interaction even with athletes taking part in the Games.

While this level of control over the media is unprecedented when it comes to the Olympics, the situation outside the bubble can be even worse, according to the FCCC.

“The Chinese state continues to find new ways to intimidate foreign correspondents, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press seeks to interview, via online trolling, physical assaults, cyber hacking, and visa denials,” the report said.

“Chinese authorities also appear to be encouraging a spate of lawsuits or the threat of legal action against foreign journalists, typically filed by sources long after they have explicitly agreed to be interviewed.”

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The risk landscape “is changing at the moment in unfamiliar ways,” said David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. “In particular, news organizations face warnings that their reporting may expose them to legal sanctions or civil lawsuits, or – most ominously – to national-security investigations.”

“In the past, the main tools used to control media involved restrictions on access, blacklisting from events, or problems with press cards and visas,” he added. “The growing use of the law is new and worrying.”

Increasing legal threats prompted BBC correspondent John Sudworth to relocate to Taiwan in March, 2021, after he reported on Xinjiang, where China has been accused of widespread crimes against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. “As we made our hasty exit, the plainclothes police tailing us and our young children to the airport were final proof of the dangers we faced and of China’s deep intolerance for independent journalism,” Mr. Sudworth said in the FCCC report.

Prior to leaving the country, Mr. Sudworth was on a series of short-term visas, some lasting just a month, rather than the typical year. Other outlets have faced similar restrictions, severely limiting their ability to operate as staff are forced to devote a large amount of time to renewing visas over and over.

Many reporters seeking accreditation to cover China simply do not receive a visa at all, forcing them to report from outside the country. The Globe and Mail has been waiting more than six months for a visa to enter China, and the FCCC report said some journalists have waited for more than a year, with several outlets having more than one application outstanding.

“For a second straight year, we had to find ways to cover China almost entirely from outside the mainland,” said Jonathan Cheng, Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. “It has tested our resourcefulness, and there are some things we simply are unable to do from afar.”

Correspondents surveyed said that officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which handles visa applications, “raised concerns with their or their outlet’s previous coverage of China” when they were applying for accreditation.

“This indicates the Chinese government is willing to grant credentials to journalists and organizations, but only to those whose coverage they deem useful or favourable,” the FCCC report said.

Many Western media outlets increasingly base their China coverage out of Taipei or Seoul. Hong Kong, once a hub for media covering all of Asia, including China, has become less attractive for many outlets since the passage in 2020 of a national-security law, which has been used to power a sweeping crackdown on civil society and the press.

The city has also begun expelling foreign journalists. In November, Economist correspondent Sue-Lin Wong’s routine visa renewal was denied, forcing her to leave Hong Kong. A recent survey by the city’s own Foreign Correspondents’ Club found that 84 per cent of respondents felt the working environment for journalism has “changed for the worse” since the national security law came into force.

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On top of all this, China also has some of the strictest COVID-19 regulations in the world, which have often been weaponized against the media, according to the FCCC. “COVID-19 has been used frequently by authorities seeking to delay approvals for journalist visas, shut down reporting trips, deny access to certain locations, and decline interview requests,” the report said. “Foreign journalists are often asked to comply with requirements and restrictions that do not apply to others, both Chinese and foreign.”

“Continued zero-COVID policies, staffing issues, rising geopolitical tensions, growing mistrust, and at times outright hostility toward Western media in China create a perfect storm,” said Steven Jiang, Beijing bureau chief for CNN. “Life and work for foreign reporters in this country are only going to become more challenging in the foreseeable future.”

While the FCCC has long warned of deteriorating conditions in China, the Olympics is shining a new light on the restrictions faced by foreign media in the country. Ahead of the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, grand promises about greater freedoms were made, the majority of which did not pan out or were quickly rolled back after the closing ceremony.

Rule 48 of the Olympic charter states the International Olympic Committee “takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.” The IOC has been repeatedly criticized for failing to hold host countries to this stated ideal or various commitments about press freedom made during the bidding process.

“China’s approach to foreign journalists is in direct contrast to its own stated policies for foreign media and the Olympic spirit of excellence, friendship and respect,” the FCCC said.

James Griffiths is a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Globe and Mail correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe previously sat on the organization’s board.

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