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A policeman covers a camera to stop journalists from recording footage outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People's Court, where Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan - who reported on Wuhan's COVID-19 outbreak - was set for trial on Dec. 28, 2020.LEO RAMIREZ/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the worst periods for press freedom in China in decades, with tough restrictions on movement and a superpowered surveillance state making on-the-ground reporting more difficult than ever and keeping journalists bottled up in Beijing or blocked from entering China entirely.

But even as restrictions have been lifted this year and China starts to reopen to the world, there is little hope this will lead to a more open environment for journalism, according to a new report by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

“A bevy of state restrictions, ongoing digital surveillance, and the continued harassment of Chinese colleagues and sources means existing challenges to true freedom of the press in China remain,” the group said in its annual press freedoms report.

China has long been a difficult country from which to report, but press freedoms “declined at an accelerated pace” during the pandemic, according to the report. Particularly outside major cities, local authorities took advantage of public-health measures to enact extra restrictions on foreign media, even ones that did not apply to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Almost two-thirds of respondents to a foreign correspondents group’s survey said their reporting faced obstacles from officials citing pandemic restrictions, while 46 per cent were told to leave a place or were denied access for the same reason, despite not posing a health risk by Chinese standards.

While such excuses are now defunct, many journalists said they experienced official interference and harassment unrelated to COVID-19 when trying to do their jobs last year. More than half of respondents said they were obstructed by police or other officials, and while this represented a slight drop from previous years, it likely owes to fewer reporting trips being made outside major cities because of COVID-19 restrictions, the report said. The number of respondents who said such incidents involved manhandling or physical force increased to 14 per cent from 12 per cent.

“The working environment for foreign correspondents in China remains well short of acceptable standards of press freedom,” said Stephen McDonell, the BBC’s China correspondent, in the report. “Perhaps the most dramatic escalation has been the tendency to be followed by carloads of officials almost every time we report outside Beijing. Apart from harassing journalists, they intimidate and pressure those we are trying to interview.”

During protests across multiple Chinese cities in November, BBC journalist Ed Lawrence was beaten and detained by police in Shanghai. Police later claimed they were trying to keep him from contracting COVID-19. At least two other foreign journalists were detained while covering protests, and others were subjected to harassment and obstruction by authorities during and after the unrest.

The harassment by authorities applies to sources as well, who are often contacted and told to cancel interviews or to refuse follow-ups. The fear of speaking to foreign media means finding subjects to interview can often be extremely difficult, even on seemingly innocuous topics.

“The list of people in China who told me they’re not allowed to speak with foreign media is simply too long to even remember,” said Leen Vervaeke, a reporter with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. “Employees of state-owned companies, government workers, doctors and nurses, workers at vaccination centres, [most] academics, epidemic workers, experts at think tanks, teachers … they’ve all told me they’re not allowed to speak to me, even on the most trivial topics.”

For Chinese employees of foreign media, the pressure can often become unbearable. Already strictly limited to “auxiliary” work such as translation or driving, they are the first to be harassed over sensitive stories and can be subjected to racial and often gendered harassment by pro-government trolls.

Chinese employees lack the relative protection that a foreign passport provides, and many who previously worked as news assistants for foreign bureaus have left the country or quit their jobs in recent years. The risks they face are extreme: China is the No. 1 jailer of journalists in the world, with more than 120 Chinese journalists currently detained, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“State harassment of Chinese colleagues and Chinese sources contacted by foreign outlets has increased dramatically,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said. “This portends badly for coverage, where even the few journalists who are given credentials to live and work in China are unable to safely work with and talk to Chinese citizens.”

The number of foreign media based in China has dropped significantly in recent years, as journalists from a host of countries have struggled to gain accreditation to enter the country. Canada in particular has been badly affected: Last year the CBC closed its Beijing bureau, which it had operated for more than 40 years, because of visa difficulties. The Globe and Mail, too, has been blocked from mainland China, with a visa delay of more than 18 months forcing the news organization to cover the country from Hong Kong.

Of the 102 foreign correspondents who took part in the group’s survey, more than one in 10 were based outside the mainland, the report said, “a reflection of how journalism about China is increasingly becoming remote.”

Editor’s Note: James Griffiths is a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China and took part in the report covered by this article.

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