By now, hopefully everyone has heard that Al-Jazeera English has been forced to close its China bureau after the Chinese government refused to renew correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa or grant one to a replacement correspondent. The Committee to Protect Journalists has already issued a statement condemning Chan’s expulsion, as has the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
Chan herself has told reporters she’s not authorized to comment, but I’m sure she will be glad to see the attention Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion is already getting. And we may also take some small consolation in the fact that she herself is apparently moving on to some pretty cool things and will remain with Al-Jazeera English.
That said, the expulsion of Chan and Al-Jazeera is a despicable act of cowardice on the part of China’s government. Although no particular reason was given, this section of the FCCC’s statement provides some clues as to the motivation behind denying Chan’s visa:
Chinese officials had expressed anger at a documentary the channel aired last November. Melissa Chan did not even play a part in making that documentary. They have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified.
So Al-Jazeera’s crimes include airing a documentary that China didn’t like — not one that was factually incorrect, mind you, just one they didn’t like — and violating unspecified rules and regulations. Neither of these are good reasons to expel anyone from any country, but the latter is particularly concerning because it seems to be an increasingly common tactic used by the Chinese government to attempt to bully foreign reporters and keep them from covering certain stories. In 2011, for example, some reporters who covered the “Jasmine Revolution” protests were told that they had broken the law by failing to obtain prior permission to report there. Journalists outside Chaoyang Hospital reporting on the Chen Guangcheng case were recently told the same thing.
In fact, China’s regulations on foreign reporters contain no such requirement as far as I can see (original Chinese version). To conduct an interview or reporting, foreign reporters must have the prior consent of anyone they’re interviewing — which is common sense — but there is no requirement that they must apply to anyone else for permission to cover anything.
Of course, the fact that Chinese authorities are apparently operating outside the framework of their own laws will not be news to anyone, least of all anyone who followed Chan’s excellent coverage of China during her five years here (that link leads to just a small portion of it). She served as a voice for the voiceless, often putting herself in dangerous positions to get stories of injustice out in the open.
And that’s ultimately exactly why she — and Al-Jazeera English in general — won’t be allowed to continue reporting in China. Al-Jazeera was giving a voice to people the Chinese government doesn’t want heard — prisoners, petitioners, and regular people from all walks of life who had stories they wanted told. In doing this, it really was operating no differently than other foreign media outlets, or even domestic media outlets (especially the gutsier ones like the Caixin and Southern Media publications). That is, after all, what journalists are supposed to do. As George Orwell once wrote:
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.
Of course, there will be some people who will attempt to justify Al-Jazeera English’s expulsion by saying the network was too negative. There will even be people who say that the network is just a piece of the larger Western conspiracy to smear China ((an especially ridiculous claim given that Al-Jazeera is decidedly not Western and still considered the terrorist network by many ill-informed people in the US.)). I find the idea that a media organization should attempt to orchestrate some artificial “balance” between positive and negative stories patently ridiculous ((among other things, whether a story is positive or not depends largely on who you ask)), but even if you believe that, it’s beside the point here.
Because the truth is that kicking Melissa out of China is just the Chinese government taking the easy way out. The coward’s way out. Chan wasn’t reporting about how the government needed to be overthrown; for the most part, her negative reports concerned specific local problems that probably could have been resolved if the central government put much effort into attempting a resolution. Black jails, for example, have been a stain on China’s reputation for years, and both foreign and domestic media have reported on the issue before. I find it impossible to believe that if the government were truly interested in closing black jails in Beijing, it would be incapable of doing so. The government could close all the black jails in Beijing if it wanted. But it’s easier to attack the people who report about it; put pressure on the domestic reporters (or just censor their stories) and threaten or expel the foreign ones. Solving the problem would be harder.
This is an approach we’ve seen over and over again, most recently with the Chinese government’s recent exhortations that the US Embassy must take steps to prevent Chinese citizens from entering its consulates, as if that were the real problem. Chen Guangcheng and Wang Lijun ran to US consulates because, although they came from entirely different backgrounds, both men had no faith in the ability of China’s government to protect them. If China wanted to prevent citizens from fleeing to the US embassy, it might start by reforming its own byzantine petition system, which almost never resolves petitioners’ problems and is responsible for the existence of the aforementioned black jails. But reforming the petition system would be really hard. Writing editorials condemning the US for interfering in China’s internal affairs? That’s really easy.
China’s government is not alone in its pursuit of the easy short-term non-solution over the difficult long-term real solution, but the specifics do make China’s case particularly disheartening. Chan is the first journalist to be expelled from China since 1998 — although China has been expelling journalists since at least the 1980s — but given the way journalists covering the Chen Guangcheng case have been treated ((Cordoned off, press credentials and IDs photographed, dozens called in and accused of breaking the law, etc.)) one wonders if she will be the only reporter forced out this year.
In any event, the expulsion of Al-Jazeera English is depressing and ominous, and it will negatively impact the reporting atmosphere in China. I had the good fortune get to know Melissa a little bit before her expulsion, and China is worse off without her coverage. Her removal is an embarrassment, the childish retribution of a government it seems is perpetually more concerned with silencing problems than with solving them.