News experiences under the soft control of Xianjiang Government

Phyllis Tsang - Editorial Board member, The Journalist

For a better understanding of the mainland government's new approaches to “media control” during and after the July 5 riots in Xinjiang, The Journalist contacted three reporters for their experiences and thoughts. One of them, David Elimer of Britain's Sunday Telegraph, concluded that the mainland authorities seemed to have adopted a “new and open”approach towards journalists by “helping”them in news coverage but were, in fact, trying their best to hinder the journalists in their work.

IT Channels Blocked

According to Choi Chi-yuk, a reporter from the South China Morning Post, once they reported to officials of Urumqi, they were provided with hundreds of photos depicting the bloody death of citizens during the riots so that they could use it for news. However, no details of the riots were given. He guessed this was help to create an impression that the rioters were crude and hence the necessity for the clamp down.

Apart from “management” of information, the “most effective” soft control of officials over the media was to control the access to internet, the channel used to send information out of the city. Two reporters said that accessing the internet was the most difficult part of covering the riots in Xinjiang.

After the riots broke the Xinjiang government speedily set up an official media centre in the Hoitak Hotel in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region. And reporters were asked to register, stay in and work in this hotel. Since internet was completely blocked immediately after the riots erupted and this media centre was the only place in the region with internet access to the outside world, journalists from all over the globe were forced to take up the offer and stay in the hotel.

David Elimer complained that the media centre inside the hotel was one of the obstacles the media faced. “Around 300 journalists from all over the world, including cameramen and TV crew, packed into the small media centre of 300 square meters had to fight for access to the internet.”

With hundreds of journalists packed into such a small and primitively equipped room working round-the-clock meant they had to fight for the 30 connections, creating an extremely difficult situation for television reporters who relied entirely on internet transmission of footage.

A journalist with a Japanese TV station complained that the internet connection was repeatedly cut, making transmission of data painfully slow. "This made our work on TV news footage transmission extremely difficult," he said.

"My crew, including a Chinese assistant, had to stand by at the media center the whole day in order to fight for internet connection,” he added. The TV journalist finally had to cover the story by himself in the city.

Meanwhile, not all the overseas journalists were welcomed to work in media center. Those from “unwelcome media” and barred from reporting in Xinjiang, were not allowed into the media center. One such journalist was found working in the center and taken away immediately by official staffs. At that time, internet connection in the center was suddenly halted for about 20 minutes.

Translators visited by police

For the purpose of building an open atmosphere for press, arranged interviews were also provided to overseas media. However, there were also obstructions during these arranged interviews.

Elimer said he was obstructed form doing his job on a number of occasions, by both police and local officials. “I was stopped from interviewing Uighur residents of the Erdaoqiao area by the
police and local officials,” he said.

He was even “moved on” by police in the Siamachang district on July 9 where numerous residents told him they had been told not to speak to foreign journalists. The Uighurs he used as local “fixers” and translators told him that they had been visited by the police and told not to work for him.

Correspondents arrested

Apart from the obstruction, overseas journalists had also been arrested by police when they were doing their job in Xinjiang. Several foreign correspondents - from Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan - were arrested by Urumqi police on July 10 while covering a demonstration of Uighur residents.

The Japanese journalist recalled that he came up against a crowd by coincidence when he traveling through the city by taxi.

He saw the crowd becoming restive and armed police starting to strike and kick young Uighurs after he got off the taxi and began takingvideo of the situation from about 30 meters away.

When the police found there were journalists at the scene they started to beat and arrest about 20 Uighurs young men. Two armed policemen then came up to him and took him away to a police station.

"We, including the Spanish and the Netherlands journalists, were held in the police station for almost eight hours," he said. But they were allowed to use mobile phones during detention and only asked some simple questions by the police, while some video clips, previously recorded, were checked.

After their release they were told that they had lied to the (Uighurs) young people, agitated them and led them to hold a demonstration. This was the reason for their detention.

The Japan TV journalist was puzzled as he had not even spoken to anyone at the scene and did not understand what had been happening there. "About 15 minutes after I arrived at the scene I was arrested," he said.

Outrage over the incidents

These incidents in Xinjiang clearly show that the mainland authorities have put a lot of restraints and barriers into their new system while “welcoming” more journalists from all over the world to cover China.

Journalists have subsequently been outraged that the military police not only obstructed but assaulted other journalists and then arresting them while they were covering in a rally in Urumqi on September 4, nearly two months after the July 5 riot. (Editor note: On September 8, the Urumqi officials fabricated an accusation against the three Hong Kong reporters by accusing them inciting the rioters. The trampling of press freedom triggered huge anger among journalists.)

The so-called "open approaches" towards the media promoted by mainland authorities appear to be nothing more than propaganda. Clearly China has still a long, long way to go towards real freedom of expression.