German official voices concern over limits on foreign press in China

BERLIN (Reuters) - A senior German official on Monday expressed concern about limits facing foreign correspondents in China, and urged Beijing to allow state-funded German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle to open an office in Beijing.

Foreign Ministry State Secretary Andreas Michaelis underscored the importance of freedom of speech and the press as central rights in the German constitution in remarks at the opening of a one-day German-Chinese journalist dialogue.

“We are concerned when we hear reports about obstruction of the work of foreign journalists in China,” Michaelis told two dozen Chinese and Western media representatives, and Guo Weimin, vice minister of China’s Information Office of the State Council.

Michaelis noted that Deutsche Welle had tried unsuccessfully for some time to open an office in Beijing.

“We believe, that as strategic partners we should use the opportunity to get to know one another better, and to understand each other’s perspectives. In Germany, we can receive China Global Television Network in every hotel, in every household. Why should this not be possible in China for Deutsche Welle?” he said.

Michaelis said he welcomed news that German weekly newspaper Die Zeit would soon be re-opening an office in China, and said he hoped that other media would be able to do so as well.

The newspaper has not had a correspondent in China for three years.

“We may not always have the same opinion, but less dialogue is not the right way to overcome our differences,” the German diplomat said.

Peter Limbourg, director general of Deutsche Welle, told Reuters the organization had tried unsuccessfully for years to open an office in China, and the Chinese government also blocked its content from being seen in China.

“This exclusion of free expression should not only be seen as an unfriendly act, but is also a sign of the Chinese government’s mistrust of its own people,” he said.

Deutsche Welle opened an office in Taipei on the self-ruled island of Taiwan three months ago to better cover the region, a spokesman said.

Veteran Chinese journalist Gao Yu, who had worked for Deutsche Welle as a columnist, remains under strict house arrest in China and is barred from publishing after being convicted of leaking state secrets in April 2015.

In 2016, several Deutsche Welle journalists were granted entry to China ahead of a summit of the Group of 20 industrialized nations in Hangzhou, China, but were then refused the necessary accreditions for the event.

Guo, who spoke at the dialogue after Michaelis, did not address his comments on Deutsche Welle.

Guo said media organizations had an important role to play in promoting understanding, combating trade protectionism, and helping expand economic ties.

“In a world in which we cooperate more and more, the media are a bridge that ... connects us,” he said, citing several cooperation agreements between German and Chinese media groups.

In October Chinese President Xi Jinping told foreign journalists to roam the country and report more, even as five global news organizations found themselves without invitations to cover a speech where Xi introduced his new leadership line-up following a once-in-five-years Communist Party Congress.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Alison Williams and Richard Pullin