A senior BBC journalist was beaten and detained by police in Shanghai while covering a protest Sunday, the broadcaster said – one of several incidents of Chinese authorities trying to stop foreign journalists reporting on the rare anti-government unrest.
Video shows Ed Lawrence being dragged to the ground by four police officers near Urumqi Road, where thousands had gathered to mourn the victims of a fire in the Xinjiang region and call for an end to COVID-19 restrictions – which many blame for hindering the response to the fire. In a statement, the BBC said Mr. Lawrence was “beaten and kicked by the police” during his arrest and was held for several hours before being released.
“It is very worrying that one of our journalists was attacked in this way whilst carrying out his duties,” the statement added. “We have had no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities, beyond a claim by the officials who later released him that they had arrested him for his own good in case he caught COVID from the crowd. We do not consider this a credible explanation.”
On Twitter, Mr. Lawrence said he understood that “at least one local national was arrested after trying to stop the police from beating me.”
At least two other foreign journalists were briefly detained Sunday, and other reporters said police harassed them or tried to prevent them from approaching protesters or recording the unrest.
In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said it was “extremely disturbed” by the treatment of journalists covering the protests.
“Under Chinese law, foreign journalists are entitled to unfettered access to report in China, and in these cases were often doing so on the streets of the very cities they are residents of,” the club said.
“The FCCC is very disappointed and frustrated at the increasing barriers placed in front of foreign journalists operating in China, and the aggression displayed towards them by police. We call on the authorities to uphold their own promises and protect the safety of all foreign journalists working in this country.”
Press freedom has declined significantly in China in recent years, with multiple journalists expelled and other outlets, including The Globe and Mail, unable to secure visas to enter the country.
In its most recent annual report on press freedom, the FCCC – which represents journalists from more than 40 countries but is not officially recognized by Chinese authorities – said Beijing’s “obstructions to independent reporting are worsening at the same time the world becomes increasingly polarized over China’s rise.”
“The correct response is not to block journalists and their ability to work, but to let more in and to allow them to report unfettered,” the report said.
Last month, the CBC said it was closing its Beijing bureau, which it had operated for more than 40 years, due to ongoing visa difficulties.
“While there was no dramatic expulsion or pointed public statements, the effect is the same,” said CBC News editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon. “We can’t get visas for our journalists to work there as permanent correspondents.”
“Closing the Beijing bureau is the last thing we want to do, but our hand has been forced,” he added. “We hope China will some day open up again to our journalists, just as we hope Russia will one day reconsider its decision to expel us.”
Disclosure: James Griffiths is a member of the FCCC.