German China Correspondents’ Open Letter to Merkel

Some thirty German correspondents in Beijing and Shanghai asked German chancellor Angela Merkel to address problems like state-security forces’ infringement on their work in China, and open threats that visa wouldn’t be extended for journalists who reported on “sensitive issues”. German news magazine Der Spiegel reported about the open letter on Monday. The correspondents expect working conditions like those which went without saying for Chinese journalists in Germany.

Merkel starts a two-day visit to China on Thursday.

The open letter thanks Merkel for previous efforts she had made during German-Chinese government consultations in 2011, but also states that there had been no improvements. Melissa Chan‘s case had been a recent point of culmination. Excerpts from the open letter:

Interlocutors are locked away, or pressured not to talk to us.

Our Chinese co-workers are asked by the state security to spy on us. They are warned of dealing with critical topics. During fieldwork in particular, they are threatened – in single cases, there is violence.

[…]

The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs gave a colleague from Der Spiegel a runaround for almost a year and in fact thus denied him accreditation.

The rules introduced prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, according to which only the agreement by the interviewee to an interview is needed, have been interpreted restrictively by the police in sensitive cases, since 2011. In such cases, suddenly, coverage is only permitted with approval from authorities.

The ministry of foreign affairs asserts that nothing had changed, but in practice, journalists are at the mercy of security authorities. In our view, the uncertainties are meant to intimidate.

Chinese embassy diplomats ask superiors at central editorial departments to exert influence on their correspondents and to ensure less “critical” coverage. Senior German correspondents who have worked in Beijing since the 1990s see a decline in conditions, even compared to the situation back then.

The open letter appears to be signed by 25 correspondents.

Visa apparently need to be renewed annually, in December. If previous tries to improve working conditions haven’t led to tangible improvements, correspondents’ employees themselves should adopt measures which make correspondents less dependent on China as a place to cover. Such measures could include attractive location options for the correspondents to choose from after two or three years in China, or anytime a correspondent’s visa isn’t extended within that scheduled period. One may ask, of course, if such options shouldn’t be on the table for any correspondent who reports from a difficult environment – but among those environments, China is probably the place from where accurate coverage is in highest demand. Alternative places might include Taiwan or South-East Asia. And after a few years there, a correspondent might (try to) return to China.

Obviously, one can wish the correspondents luck under the circumstances as they are, and one can always hope that things will improve – but frequently, people who complain about the conditions seem to be unaware of the nature of the Chinese state. And that makes me wonder if coverage from China is realistic anyway.

Then again, correspondents speaking out in an open letter are transparent about the limitations to their work. That in itself may be kind of assuring for readers who depend on their coverage.

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