In China, the rules are different, with entire regions off limits to reporters, and entire topics, taboo. In their quest to get the story and to shed light on the truth, journalists face harassment and even violence.
While foreign correspondents reporting inside China can be reprimanded or forced to leave the country when the government denies their visa applications, Chinese journalists and their families face an even greater threat. The government says it wants journalists to cover news in an objective way, but at the same time discredits any story that upsets the political balance or casts the Communist Party in unfavorable light.
Join CNN's Kristie Lu Stout as she explores China's ever expanding role on the global stage and examines whether its leaders can provide the increased access and transparency journalists are demanding to do their jobs. And hear from veteran journalists about the challenges they've faced and the big questions they think need to be answered in the year ahead.
Her guest this month: Charles Hutzler, China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal; Ying Chan, journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong and co-director of the university's China Media Project; and Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China, and Beijing bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Ying Chan, Charles Hutzler and Peter Ford, Welcome to ON CHINA. Now, recently the world watched as reporters from BBC and CNN were pushed, shoved, and man-handled, outside the trial of the Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong. Why did Chinese authorities feel compelled to literally push foreign media away from the story?
PETER FORD: Well, because they didn't want it covered. But of course what they did was make sure it was covered even more enthusiastically, because when journalists get wrestled to the ground, they like to put that on air. I think the police handled it very badly. They've handled other sensitive trials in a much better fashion. But they messed that one up and I think they know they messed it up.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: To follow up on this point of physical intimidation, it comes in many different forms, right? There's also detention, house visits, phone calls. And I'm curious in your experience reporting in China, what have you experienced in terms of physical intimidation by the authorities.
CHARLES HUTZLER: I've been in China for a long time and so, being followed does happen from time to time. House visits, very, very rarely. But I think that for visual journalists, for photographers and TV people, the physical intimidation is much worse. And it's gotten much worse in recent years, particularly out in the countryside in small towns, if you happen to be covering a story that the local officials just do not want to get out. They will do more than push people around and they will grab cameras and confiscate them and in some cases smash them.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Charles, you said you were followed? How so?
CHARLES HUTZLER: Well, not recently, but the most recent probably, at least the most recent I was able to detect, would have been in early 2011, around the time of the so-called Jasmine Revolution. And there was a concerted effort by authorities in Beijing to make sure that foreigners weren't covering the story, or at least doing it with great difficulty. And so they had people who would tail us in cars and on foot and make it very obvious that they were doing so.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: There's physical harassment, there's also bureaucratic harassment. I'm talking about the visa wars, and the withholding of visas for foreign correspondents in China. How effective has that been in controlling overseas media coverage inside in China? Your thoughts.
YING CHAN: I think it has the inhibiting effect. At least it's like a warning, that you need to be careful with your reporting. But then with Chinese reporters, I'm talking about Chinese mainland reporters, they have it worse. Because you can be subjected to arrest, being fired from your job, being pushed out. And it's a very intimidating atmosphere.
CHARLES HUTZLER: The use of, or the threat of not renewing or revoking visas has become much more common in the last few years. For many years, it was only rarely invoked and now, particularly if you're a reporter that's covering very sensitive issues, the authorities will bring it up from time-to-time as a reminder.
PETER FORD: Yes, and I mean, this year of course was unprecedented, the sort of pressure they put up on the New York Times and Bloomberg, both of which had written about the private financial affairs of relatives of senior leaders. The entire bureaus of those organizations were implicitly threatened with expulsion, because they had to wait for their visas until the very, very last minute. And the New York Times is still waiting for 3 visas that they have not got. They've not been able to get Austin Ramzy in, or Chris Buckley, or indeed their bureau chief, Phil Pan, doesn't have a proper visa. So I think it's a clear attempt, in the absence of any official explanation as to why they had to wait this long, it certainly feeds suspicion that it's retribution for the content of their coverage.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: What topics are deemed sensitive to cover in China, for journalists in China? What are the no-go topics?
PETER FORD: As far as the government's concerned, I think clearly they have drawn a red line around the private and personal affairs of senior leaders and their relatives. And I think we've learned in recent months, I think, anything to do with human rights is clearly sensitive.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: You want to add on this point.
YING CHAN: You have Tibet, you have Xinjiang, you have June Fourth ...
CHARLES HUTZLER: ... the military ...
YING CHAN: ... the military. Abuses and corruption allegations of top officials, especially the former members of Politburo or current members, but it seems the list has been growing.
CHARLES HUTZLER: They seem to regard reporting on the leadership and on the private lives of leaders and their families as an attempt by foreign media to interfere in the political balance within China itself.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: That's why it's so sensitive.
CHARLES HUTZLER: That's why, at least that's what the government is saying, the reason that they dislike it so much. They consider it interference.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Now you have these taboo topics. You also have taboo geographic locations inside China. Access is an issue. Where can you not go inside China as a correspondent?
PETER FORD: According to the rules, the only place we can't go is Tibet. The proper Tibet Autonomous Region. And the government was very clear about that when they introduced the new rules, which said that apart from that we could go anywhere in the country, and talk to anybody who was willing to talk to us. Xinjiang is practically impossible to report in. If you try to go to a village where the official news agency has reported there was an outbreak of violence, and you try to get there, you will find that there are roadblocks 5 kilometers around that village, and you will be lucky if you get through them. Whole swaths of Tibetan-inhabited areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, reporters have been told that these are out of bounds. Now when you go to the Foreign Ministry and say, is this true, they say, No, it's not. But if on the ground, local officials and policemen tell you that you can't be there, and tell villagers that they can't talk to you. That basically stops you reporting.