Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 16:52 UK

How free are reporters in China?

Chinese paramilitary policeman

China has extended some of the rules that gave foreign reporters greater freedom during the Beijing Olympics. The BBC asked a range of reporters in China what difference the rules have made to their working lives.

Correspondent for the Economist

"It was mainly a psychological difference, we had been widely flouting the rules before, leaving Beijing to report in the provinces without seeking advance approval as was officially required.

"So when the new regulations were introduced, we were still travelling just as much but without the fear of the knock on the door by the police, without the need to change from hotel to hotel to remain under the radar screen.

"But we were still frequently encountering local officials who either didn't know or said they didn't know about the new Olympic regulations or were determined to ignore them.

nervous policeman in Tiananmen Square
Chinese policemen used to be nervous of foreign journalists

"There was one remarkable incident, shortly after the new regulations were introduced early last year, when I went to Henan province.

"As I expected, I was stopped by local officials. But I called the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, and remarkably, the local officials apologised to me and disappeared, leaving me with startled villagers who said this was the first time they'd ever managed to openly speak with foreign journalists.

"But since then, I've encountered the same kind of difficulties as before the regulations. A few days ago, I was out in the western region of Xinjiang, and was detained for several hours by local police.

"There are key parts in the country that remain very difficult to get into, and the most obvious one is Tibet. Tibet wasn't mentioned specifically in the Olympic regulations, in theory they apply to the whole of China, but orally Chinese officials said Tibet remained excluded and we still had to seek permission."

BBC correspondent

"These rules were a small step forward in that they allowed foreign reporters to legitimately travel across China without first getting permission.

"But, like many rules and laws issued by the Chinese central government, they weren't always implemented properly.

We need these very minimal rules to be continued - and extended to China's own journalists
Calum MacLeod, USA Today
"In fact, the Chinese authorities, whether in some far-flung village or in central Beijing, would simply ignore the rules if it suited them.

"They often intimidate foreign reporters - by detaining them or following them in unmarked cars - which prevents us doing our jobs.

"I was hassled by the authorities in Sichuan while trying to report on the grief of parents who lost children during the earthquake.

"And, like other foreign news organisations, under these rules the BBC was not welcome to roam Tibetan areas asking questions."

Reporter for the Japanese agency Kyodo News

"After the rules were introduced, we didn't need to get local government permission to travel to places, so that made my life a lot easier.

"Before, if we had no permission, we feared getting caught by the police. Once the rules came in, we could relax. Now we have to take care again.

"It's sometimes easier for me than it is for American or European reporters in China, because I am Asian and can sometimes pass for being Chinese.

Potala palace
To report from Tibet, journalists still need special permission
"That means I can go to places that others would not be able to get to because they would be detected. Last week I went to Xinjiang.

"One bad aspect of the regulations was that it made it more difficult for us to interview local officials.

"Before the Olympic reporting rules, they would often organise events that would allow us to meet them.

"After the rules came in, they said we could organise things ourselves, which was not always easy."

China correspondent for USA Today

"The biggest beneficiaries of these rules were TV and radio journalists because they require more people and equipment to do their jobs, and so are more visible.

"For the print media, it's easier to be less conspicuous.

"In the past, the rules stated that all foreign journalists needed approval before interviewing people outside Beijing and Shanghai, but these rules were largely ignored.

"What the new regulations did, in effect, was to legitimise reporting activities that were already taking place.

When the Olympics arrived, despite the new rules, the Chinese government was so nervous that they tightened up control
Barbara Luethi, Swiss TV

"Even while these rules were in place, I've still been detained in local areas and had my reporting restricted by officials who did not know the rules or did not care about them.

"But, as foreign journalists, it did mean we had a piece of paper to show them.

"We need these very minimal rules to be continued - and extended to China's own journalists."

Asia correspondent for Swiss Television

"These rules looked good on paper, but they weren't implemented properly.

"In Beijing, when I was stopped I could pull out the rule booklet and tell the police I was allowed to be there.

"Or I could call the Foreign Ministry and they would tell the police to let you go.

photojournalist stopped by police
Officials do not always know about, or abide by, the more relaxed rules
"But this didn't work in the countryside. When I went to a village to do a story, I would be stopped anyway. My tapes would be confiscated and would be taken to the police station.

"When the Olympics arrived, despite the new rules, the Chinese government was so nervous that they tightened up control or made new rules.

"The authorities would also threaten interviewees. They would not stop me, but this was another tool to control us."

Local journalists were not affected by the change in regulations, but they, too, face restrictions in their work, especially when working for state-run news sources.

Chinese journalist working for state-run media

(who wishes to remain anonymous)

"The government's attitude towards the media has always been on a need-to-know basis.

"Officials feel that if they have something to say, they hold a press conference. They have no need to answer journalists' questions individually. They don't work to the media's timings.

"The Olympics itself will not bring changes overnight, regardless whether its for the foreign or domestic media. It is just one among many things that will only change gradually.

"The government has done things differently for the Olympics, but I can't say whether they will regress or keep improving things after the Games.

"All I can say is, I haven't seen much change in how I do my job."

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