Opinion | China’s Ill-Timed Attack on the Free Press

Opinion | China’s Ill-Timed Attack on the Free Press

China’s crackdown on journalists from The Times and other American news organizations is an unfortunate echo of the Cold War, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. The global spread of the coronavirus demands independent and trusted information from the country where the scourge began.

On Tuesday, China announced that it was expelling correspondents for The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and demanded that these organizations, as well as the Voice of America and Time magazine, provide the government with detailed information about their operations. The actions were presented as retaliation for the Trump administration’s cap on the number of Chinese citizens working in the United States for five state-owned media outlets, and their designation as “foreign missions.”

The measures were redolent of Cold War clashes with the Soviet Union, when reporters often became victims of tit-for-tat expulsions over matters for which they carried no responsibility and over which they had no control.

The executive editors of The Times, The Post and The Journal all issued statements decrying the expulsion of their reporters at a time when reliable information about the coronavirus was essential to China, the United States and the world. Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said it was “critical that the governments of the United States and China move quickly to resolve this dispute and allow journalists to do the important work of informing the public.”

The problem with China’s depiction of the expulsions as “totally a necessary counterreaction,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly noted, is that “this isn’t apples to apples.” Though Western news organizations may work in an authoritarian country as a result of reciprocal agreements, these publishers are not comparable to the organizations the Communist regimes, whether in the old Soviet Union or the new China, send abroad.

The Chinese news organizations that the United States reclassified as foreign missions — Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily and People’s Daily — do report news, but they are state-controlled, their reports serve the interests of the state and it is common knowledge that their oversize staffs include spies.

The Voice of America is a part of an independent U.S. agency funded by Congress, the Agency for Global Media, but its charter requires it to disseminate “accurate, balanced and comprehensive news and information.” More important, the other news organizations are fully independent and report on China as dispassionately and honestly as they do on the American government.

The Soviet rulers during the Cold War, and China’s rulers today, either don’t understand that distinction or deliberately deny it to mislead their own public. They want prestigious Western news organizations to be in their countries for the semblance of democratic normalcy. But they want their people to believe that these are ideological mouthpieces similar to their own media, and that unfavorable reporting about their leaders or the treatment of ethnic minorities and dissidents is the other side “making fake news through the so-called freedom of the press,” as Tuesday’s statement from the Foreign Ministry put it. The Chinese Communist Party is not the first authoritarian regime to adopt President Trump’s characterization of the press.

Attacks on Western news organizations have become more intense under Xi Jinping, and even more acute with the Trump administration’s trade war. Under Mr. Xi, China has also greatly expanded its efforts to recruit Chinese citizens, including journalists, for intelligence-collecting.

The Times and other Western news organizations know that reporting from countries like China is difficult and risky. Despite all the obstacles in their way, they have reported aggressively on the coronavirus and on other issues deemed highly sensitive to China’s rulers, including the mass internment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and the suspect dealings of the family members of the leaders. Journalists have been expelled for their reporting, and online access to the work of many news outlets, including The Times, The Journal, The Post, Bloomberg, Reuters and The Guardian, is all blocked.

Expelling independent reporters over an intergovernmental dispute for which they have no responsibility is unwarranted and, in the current crisis, counterproductive.

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