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September 23, 2017

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Agencies aim for China press freedom

In 2001, when it made a successful bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing promised there would be complete freedom for the foreign media to report in China. While this did not occur, more liberal rules were introduced, such as not requiring official permission before conducting interviews.

However, 2010's Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia triggered fear in Beijing that the Arab Spring movement might spill over into China and, very soon, there was a clampdown on the media, which has now led to the first expulsion of a foreign correspondent in more than a decade: Melissa Chan, the reporter for Al Jazeera's English-language channel.

Last year, when there were calls on the Internet for a gathering outside a McDonald's at Beijing's Wangfujing shopping area, Chinese security authorities forbade reporting from the site. Chan tweeted at the time "police warned most serious consequence of breaking reporting laws would be revocation of my visa and press card."

This year, Chan was put on a short leash. Instead of being granted the normal one-year press accreditation, she was only given two months. Then, when that apparently did not work, she was given one month. Last week, her accreditation expired.

China has implied that the reporter had violated Chinese laws and regulations. However, when asked at a press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was unable to say which laws and regulations had been breached.

"China addressed this problem in accordance with laws and regulations," the spokesman said. "The media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong."

However, Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, evidently doesn't think they have done anything wrong. "We've been doing a first-class job at covering all stories in China," he said. "Our editorial DNA includes covering all stories from all sides. We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage."

The Melissa Chan case dominated the May 8 press conference, with the Associated Press reporting that 14 of 18 questions asked concerned the expulsion. Hong dodged and weaved, refusing to say whether the expulsion should be seen as a warning to other journalists.

Oddly, the Foreign Ministry's "transcript" of the day's session omitted all 14 questions, leaving only two questions that dealt with the Middle East and two on the Philippines. Evidently, the Chinese government did not want to publicize the fact that it was unable to provide satisfactory answers regarding this case.

This statement — that the accused "know what they did wrong" without making any specific allegations — is frequently used in China when the authorities cannot justify their actions.

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