BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese government has formally banned reporting without permission on a popular Beijing shopping street where police assaulted some foreign journalists who gathered there Sunday for a would-be protest.
Officials drew attention to the rules, carried on a Beijing government website, Wednesday. They said the ban on reporting without permission in Wangfujing had been in place since 2000, but had only been put in written form since January 1, when the rules were updated.
“Reporters, foreign and local, have always needed permission first before reporting in Wangfujing,” Xie Qingdong of the Wangfujing Management and Construction Office told Reuters by telephone.
“The rules were not very specific, so we put out updated ones. We have always demanded people seek permission first for reporting. It was not written as specifically before,” he added.
“This was the case over the Olympics too. We granted permission to film in Wangfujing to foreign media, but after they had first applied to us,” Xie said.
Some foreign reporters were harassed or beaten up by police over the weekend in Wangfujing, after an online message from abroad urged a pro-democracy gathering inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Arab world. Police smothered the designated area and no protest happened.
The Foreign Ministry Tuesday blamed foreign media for the fracas for not following regulations and blocking a busy street without just cause.
Beijing likes to style Wangfujing as the city’s answer to Fifth Avenue in New York.
According to rules issued just before the Beijing Olympics, China allows foreign reporters to interview anyone as long as they have their permission.
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.
The rules for Wangfujing ban “reporting, taking photographs (and) causing people to congregate without authorization,” though Xie said the photography rule did not apply to ordinary people.
They also ban dog walking, the wearing of sloppy dress, fortune telling and other “feudal and superstitious activities.”
Before the designated protest time last Sunday, police warned foreign journalists to stay away, apparently nervous about the protest call.
Despite assurances that China is immune from the kind of unrest roiling the Middle East, China’s ruling Communist Party has responded nervously, detaining scores of dissidents and tightening censorship of online discussions.
The United States and European Union have both expressed concern about the roughing up of reporters.
The Chinese government has now apparently put several areas of the capital off-limits to routine reporting. A construction fence has been erected around another normally busy square near the Xidan intersection, site of the Democracy Wall calls for reform in 1978.
Tiananmen Square, where student protests were bloodily put down by the army in 1989, has always been a sensitive location in Beijing, and attempts at reporting there are routinely blocked.
While it is not uncommon for foreign reporters in China to be detained or pushed around by the police, Chinese reporters have it far worse. They can be fired or jailed for writing stories that stray too far from the government line.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard, editing by Miral Fahmy