DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we're going to spend time now in a country where journalism is under pressure: China.
Staffers at Bloomberg News accused their editors of spiking an investigative story to avoid the wrath of the Communist Party. And the wire service, Reuters, confirmed that Chinese officials denied a visa application for a hard-hitting reporter after an eight-month wait.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Bloomberg staffers told The New York Times that editors had spiked a story that exposed financial ties between a tycoon and family members of top Chinese officials.
Sources said Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler defended the decision, comparing it to foreign correspondents who self-censored to avoid getting kicked out of Nazi-era Germany.
Winkler denied the accusations. He said the story - and another about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks - are still active. Quote, "What you have is untrue," he said in an email to The Times.
Contacted by NPR, a Bloomberg spokesman would only say, quote, "We have high editorial standards, and these stories were not ready for publication. Any suggestion they didn't run for any other reason is absurd." Those denials, though, did not spare Bloomberg criticism.
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LANGFITT: Next Media Animation, a Taiwanese company, put out a scathing video on the episode. It includes an animated Michael Bloomberg - the company's founder and outgoing New York mayor - kowtowing to a Chinese leader and a laughing panda.
Emily Parker is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank. She says accusations of self-censorship go way beyond Bloomberg.
EMILY PARKER: I think there's going to be a tendency to really pounce on Bloomberg and to really take a - you know, just sort of shame on them, and how could they do this. And I don't think that's the most positive way to discuss the story, because I think what's clear is that this is a much larger phenomenon.
LANGFITT: Parker says all kinds of organizations - including universities, publishers and Hollywood movie studios - are under pressure not to offend the Communist Party. And the risks are real. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times did prize-winning investigations last year on the hidden wealth of family members of top officials. China responded by blocking the companies' websites and denying visas to new reporters. Bloomberg also lost money on its core business, selling financial information through the company's computer terminals.
ORVILLE SHELL: I think as China gets more powerful, and as more and more people have vested interests there, it's going to be harder and harder to kind of speak out independently.
LANGFITT: Orville Shell runs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He says China has growing leverage on those who rely on the country for revenue or for their livelihoods.
SHELL: Every media outlet must cover China to be in the big top. And if they get precluded - and this is true of individual journalists, as well - whole careers can be completely destroyed if you can't get access.
PAUL MOONEY: I am Paul Mooney. I'm a freelance journalist. I've been working in China for the last 18 years.
LANGFITT: Earlier this year, Reuters hired Mooney, who's written extensively on politically sensitive issues, such as human rights. Mooney says Chinese officials spent an hour and a half interviewing him as part of his visa application. They asked about his views on Tibet. They even quoted from interviews he'd given.
MOONEY: And at the end of it, they said, well, we hope that if we give you the visa, that you'll report more objectively in the future. And to me, this is outrageous that a government would suggest something like this to a foreign reporter, that we have to report the way that they want us to report, otherwise we won't be welcome.
LANGFITT: Chinese officials told Reuters on Friday, which happened to be National Journalist Day in China, that Mooney would not get a visa. They gave no reason.
MOONEY: This is going to have an effect on, I think, a lot of people. They're all going to be thinking about this when they go out and do their next stories, that if I write about, you know, sensitive political issues, am I going to be able to get my visa renewed? You know, so I think it's definitely going to send a chill down some people's backs.
LANGFITT: Mooney says the solution to all this pressure lies outside China.
MOONEY: I think that the U.S. government and other governments have to stand up. If the U.S. government reciprocated by sitting on a handful of visas for Xinhua News Agency or CCTV or the People's Daily, I'm sure that within a week, all the problems that we're having with visas would be solved.
LANGFITT: California Republican Dana Rohrabacher has introduced a bill to that effect, but it hasn't gone anywhere on Capitol Hill. Mooney says when he raised the idea of visa reciprocity, U.S. diplomats are reluctant to retaliate against Chinese reporters. After all, it runs counter to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.