Cracking down on the foreign press in China

Unidentified men surround a foreign journalist after they pushed him to the ground in Wangfujing, Beijing, 27 February
Image caption Large numbers of security personnel turned out to prevent journalists filming

After the beating and assaults dished out to foreign journalists on Sunday, Beijing's security authorities summoned at least a dozen of us to meetings with the police today.

Last weekend staff from 16 international news organisations said attempts were made to physically intimidate them, harass them or interfere with their work. Some were detained and had film and pictures confiscated.

We were all out on the streets because, for the second week running, an anonymous call had been made on the internet for "Jasmine Revolution" protests in China like those that have erupted in the Middle East.

We wanted to do our job as reporters and see what would happen. Now it seems the police are pressing ahead with an effort to suppress reporting this coming weekend too.

What's odd about this is that the calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China haven't led to any discernible protest of any size. But, even after the non-events of the past two weeks, the police are extremely anxious, and foreign journalists appear to be one of the government's prime concerns.

Incredulous laughter

The meetings with police were held in the offices of the Border Entry and Exit Administration. To the uninitiated that means the office, run by the police, which is responsible for approving visas for foreign journalists to work in China.

Afterwards some journalists have reported being told they may have problems with their visa renewals if they try to cover the calls for a new protest this coming Sunday. The police didn't say that to us. But at the BBC we did receive a call two days ago, from a staff member at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which she said "it would be better not to report" this Sunday.

Today the police set up a video camera and filmed as they reminded us that we need to follow China's reporting rules.

We were also told that we need special, advance permission to film interviews in several public places in Beijing, including Wangfujing, mentioned in the unsigned internet messages as the site for the Jasmine protests.

Wangfujing is one of Beijing's busiest shopping streets, and there has been no problem filming there before now.

Late last year the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, came to Beijing covering the visit by Britain's prime minister.

The BBC team filmed an interview with the Chinese artist and prominent government critic, Ai Weiwei, on Wangfujing. It attracted a fair sized crowd. But no-one complained. No-one detained Nick Robinson. No-one assaulted him.

The reason permissions are now needed, we were told, was to ensure pedestrians can flow freely. That's the same reason given by China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu on Tuesday. I wasn't at her briefing but the statement was, apparently, met with incredulous laughter from some of the journalists present.

None of this however is a laughing matter. One journalist, from Bloomberg News, was lucky he wasn't seriously injured on Sunday. He was set upon by men with sticks, beaten and kicked in the face.

The assault lasted more than 10 minutes and he was dragged into a building so the thugs could continue to assault him out of view. The American ambassador to Beijing has officially complained.

China's anxieties

The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu's briefing on Tuesday lasted 90 minutes. She did not, as far as I am aware, condemn the attacks on journalists even once, despite having many opportunities to do so.

Instead she seemed to suggest the reporters themselves were responsible, asking: "Why do some journalists always run into trouble? I find it strange. The journalists should really respect the laws and regulations."

What I can say from our own experience is that we were absolutely respecting every regulation we were aware of and following the police advice, just as we would filming in the UK or anywhere else.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Damian Grammaticas and his cameraman were stopped from filming in Beijing

We stopped when they asked us, showed them our documents, and waited for permission to proceed.

Then we were set upon, dragged, grabbed by the hair, thrown into a police van, the door slammed on my leg several times by plainclothes security men wearing earpieces. All the time dozens of uniformed police looked on and did nothing to intervene.

China's anxieties about a revolution like that in the Middle East may be unfounded, but they are real.

The problem is they are leading to a dangerous focus on foreign journalists, which some thugs in the security forces are taking as a green light to get violent with us, and it could lead to someone getting very seriously injured indeed.

But there is a wider story here too. The space that has opened up in recent years in China for discussion, limited dissent and relatively free reporting seems to be shrinking.

In the past couple of weeks, human rights monitoring groups say 100 Chinese citizens have been arrested, questioned, harassed or detained. Among them are people suspected of playing a part in the calls for protests, or seen as threats to the political power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Some have simply disappeared and their fate is unknown, a few appear to be facing serious charges of state subversion for posting internet messages about the protests.

When China was granted the right to stage the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 it was seen as an important step confirming China's opening to the world.

Allowing foreign journalists to operate as in any open society, without restrictions, was part of the deal. The gains from that Olympic opening look like they are slowly being eroded.

As a Chinese, I think obviously CCP (Chinese Communist Party) gets mad. These guys should be punished by law. They don't have rights to beat foreign reporters. You should sue these thugs. (Anonymous, China)

The journalists always said they are professional. Didn't they know they should get reporting permission first in a foreign countries? In this incident, I think China has done nothing wrong. (Shellyzsw, US)

China since becoming Communist-ruled is simply a dictatorship. It would be very interesting to see the outcome of a free and transparent election campaign followed by a similar method of voting and counting of votes what the Chinese people's preference would be. But as the Chinese Communist leaders know in their hearts what the outcome would be they wouldn't dare. (Graham, UK)

Although I hate China Communist Party - its ruling leads (to) corruption and less human right - however, we, as ordinary people, all believe that CCP is the best choice for China development. As the western press, I know some of you are not playing your real role in China, some attempt to create some "news" that would get Western people excited. To China, the most importance is to maintain the stability. (Nathan, China)