China Tightens Grip On Foreign Journalists

China is rattled by the upheavals sweeping Africa and the Middle East. It is once again ratcheting up pressure on the foreign media. Over the weekend, the government announced new reporting regulations making it harder for journalists to operate.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

China is rattled by the upheavals in the Middle East, and the country is once again ratcheting up pressure on foreign journalists. Over the weekend, the government announced new regulations making it harder for reporters to operate in the country. This came as activists online urged strolling protests for the third weekend in a row.

We're joined now by NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.

Good morning, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe what these new regulations say.

LIM: Well, it's actually quite a confusing situation. We've been told different things by different members of the government, so it's quite difficult for us who are operating in China now to know what we're allowed to do, and what we're not allowed to do. But yesterday, officials appeared to be saying that any news-gathering in busy areas of downtown Beijing would require official, written applications for permission, and that would be a huge change. I mean, if it's implemented, it would mean a simple interview on a street about anything - even like, what did you have for your lunch - that could put you in violation of the regulations, and that would be a really major rollback of press freedoms, especially the regulations that came into place before the Olympics that really allowed Beijing to win the Olympics.

So that would be very worrying indeed.

SHAPIRO: Would violating these regulations mean getting kicked out of the country or thrown in prison, or what?

LIM: Well, that's what we don't know at the moment. Over the past weekend, people have been warned that if they were in violation of these regulations, they could have their visas revoked. Many people have been called into the authorities, had meetings, and have been told that if they try to go to these places where protests are supposed to be happening, then they might be detained.

We have 13 people detained in Shanghai, at the site designated for protests there; one person in Beijing. And I mean, the week before, one person was severely beaten in Beijing. But it's actually more worrying still. Now we're beginning, over the weekend, we're beginning to see the security operators mobilizing against foreign journalists in a way that we haven't seen for many, many years.

We had reports that five reporters based on Beijing say their apartments are being monitored and watched by plainclothes police. People are being shadowed by plainclothes policemen; others have had their email hacked. And these are the kind of tactics which are normally used against Chinese dissidents. So it's extremely worrying to see them being used against the international media.

SHAPIRO: And are these new regulations exclusively focused on international media, or is there a broader significance?

LIM: Well, these regulations are focused on the international media, but the crackdown that we're seeing is wider than that. We've seen dozens of dissidents being placed under house arrest or being monitored over the past few weeks, ever since these calls for Jasmine Revolution in China emerged over the Internet. And many of those people were not related in any way to the organizers of these calls.

We hear that seven dissidents are facing criminal charges. Four others have been detained without charge. And it is also worth mentioning that the way the foreign media is treated in China is significant because it's kind of bellwether. It really measures Beijing's commitment to the rule of law. So that's why looking at what's happened over the last few days, it seems like things are going backwards rather than forwards.

SHAPIRO: Now, as we mentioned over the weekend, activists on the Web urged people in 41 Chinese cities to stage these strolling protests. How did that play out? What happened?

LIM: Well, there was this unbelievable police presence at the sites where these demonstrations were supposed to happen, and I went down to one of those sites. And there was just this incredible number of police and very, very obvious plainclothes policemen who had sort of earpieces, walkie-talkies. And really, every few yards, you'd see a policeman. And they were checking IDs both of foreigners and of any Chinese people who had cameras.

I should say at this point that there was no sign of any protest. But then what the organizers have been calling for, they've been calling for strolling protests. So all you need to do is walk past. So it's very difficult to tell if people were really there to see what was happening, or if they were just literally walking past for their shopping.

SHAPIRO: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Louisa Lim, speaking with us from Beijing.

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