China tightens reporting noose on foreign media

BEIJING Thu Mar 3, 2011 7:09am EST

Paramilitary policemen stand guard watching pedestrians walking past near the shopping street of Wangfujing in central Beijing March 1, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray

Paramilitary policemen stand guard watching pedestrians walking past near the shopping street of Wangfujing in central Beijing March 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police threatened on Thursday to revoke the visas of dozens of foreign journalists if they continue "illegal" reporting from sites where overseas websites have called for anti-government demonstrations.

Underlining the government's heightened vigilance after a spate of uprisings against authoritarian Arab governments, a senior leader said the ruling Communist Party would brook no dissent to its rule.

Defending one-party control has been a priority since pro-democracy protests were crushed in 1989, but official anxieties about social stability are expected to multiply as President Hu Jintao prepares to hand power to a successor from late 2012.

"The socialist path of political development with Chinese characteristics has been proven in practice to be the correct and only path to take," Jia Qinglin, the Communist Party's fourth-ranked leader, told more than 2,000 delegates at the opening of a largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament.

"We must never stray from it or waiver in following it at any time or under any circumstances," he said.

The stability-obsessed government keeps a tight lid on any kind of protest or dissent.

Police have rounded up dozens of dissidents since online messages from abroad urged pro-democracy gatherings inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia.

Some foreign reporters were also harassed or beaten up by police or plainclothes security last Sunday in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping street, one of the designated protest sites.

Police smothered the area and no demonstration happened.

"The Chinese government has nothing to fear," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a regular media briefing.

"I think China's reform and opening up has already proved that China's path of peaceful development is a correct choice. Any attempt to affect China's stability cannot succeed."

TIGHTER RESTRICTIONS

Police are now telling foreign reporters they might lose their government-issued journalist cards and residence visas if they continue to report from certain bustling parts of central Beijing without getting permission three working days in advance.

Some journalists were told the requirement to obtain permission prior to reporting in open spaces applies to all of China. Police denied this is a new interpretation of rules.

"In some cases, reporters have been accused of trying to help stir up a revolution, disrupt harmony in China and simply cause trouble," the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said.

Reporters in Shanghai have been told similar things by police there.

When pressed on whether the laws governing reporting in China had changed, Jiang denied it and said reporters should not "use the law as a shield," adding that the laws were very clear.

"If you try to defy the law and create news and end up being not a reporter of the news but the creator of news, then the nature of your role has changed," Jiang said.

Regulations issued just before the Beijing Olympics allow foreign reporters to interview individuals or organizations as long as they agree.

But the government often interprets the rules to suit its needs. Tibet remains off limits apart from government-organized visits, and other sensitive areas have been "temporarily" closed.

Some Chinese language websites -- almost certainly based overseas to get around the government's pervasive censorship -- are calling for more protests this Sunday, and for people to shout: "We want to eat, we want work, we want housing."

The government seems sure of its grip on power, however.

"In China, it's impossible that a Jasmine Revolution will happen," one policeman told a reporter who was called in for a meeting with the police after being present at the site of the would-be protest last Sunday.

"China's public order and security is very stable and the Chinese people support the government. Whoever breaks this stability will be punished strictly. I hope from now on that when you live and work in China, you'll respect China's laws and that last week's illegal reporting will not happen again."

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by John Chalmers)