Barry Petersen On Being A Foreign Correspondent In China

(CBS)
We were offered a glimpse into the lack of press freedom in China last week, when we learned that most people in the country likely didn't see footage of a protester interrupting Chinese President Hu Jintao's high-profile public visit to the White House with some loud criticisms of President Hu's treatment of the Falun Gong. While it was the headline of most news stories in the U.S., CBS correspondent Barry Petersen noted in a story about the censorship, "In China, what you see is what you get, and what you get is often not the full story." Indeed, the full story behind many of the reports that Barry has done in China for CBS News are far more complicated than what ends up on the air. Here's the first installment of Barry's perspective on what it's like to be a foreign correspondent in China:

The first thing you need to know about your rights as a foreign reporter in China is that, in the end, you have no rights.

Yes, they have books of rules and regulations, but the only rules that count are the ones made up by the policeman or foreign ministry officer sitting in front of you.

Does that sound frustrating? Confusing? Welcome to my world.

We were doing an interview one day on a Beijing street. We do this regularly, usually without notice or problem. This was after a series of anti-Japanese protests in China, which would only take place with the express consent of the government.

Our interview subject was the leader of one protest group.

But little did we know that the government had decided that the anti-Japanese protests were over. So as we were talking several policemen walked up and told us to stop.

Then they herded us into an office building, and split up the team: American correspondent, producer and cameraman in one office, and our Chinese soundman and our Chinese researcher in another.

They called in the officials who deal with the foreign press, who got there in about an hour. Thus ensued (after they graciously poured glasses of Coke for us) an argument about the tape.

We'd done the interview and wanted our tape.

They did not want the interview used. We argued, they listened, and in the end they got the tape. Plus, we had to sign a "confession and apology" for what we had done.

Our choices were not good. Had we resisted, we knew the Americans would be left alone to go home, but we were concerned about reprisals against our Chinese staffers.

Being detained? Expect it, so you might as well enjoy it.

Let me share another tale of journalistic woe.

According to the rules laid down by the Foreign Ministry for foreign reporters, we are not allowed to travel outside Beijing without two permissions: first, from the Beijing officials who must agree to let us go, and second, from the receiving city that must agree to accept us so they know we're coming, what the story is, and (it goes without saying) how to keep an eye on us from arrival to departure.

Clearly, you are only going to get permission for the non-controversial stories.

Sometimes you push the envelope. We wanted to do a story on a small town famous for its leather. The story was about the pollution running in the streets, the river, even the underground water supply from the chemicals used in tanning.

Had we applied the proper way, the answer would have been no, you can't go there.

So we went there without asking, always a risk. The next day, we slipped around town shooting a bit here and there, and then we went to one hard-hit village – where police officials were waiting. You can see the result .

They detained us, questioned us, took what tapes they could find, and then bought us a lavish lunch as if to say, "No hard feelings, guys."

Then they sent us packing to the airport and we were on the next flight out.

It does not always end so pleasantly. Other correspondents in China report that their Chinese staff sometimes suffer at the hands of authorities, and one researcher for the New York Times – Zhao Yan - is currently in prison, as we reported in a story about press suppression against foreign journalists seen . (You can read more about Zhao here.)

Tomorrow, read more from Barry on what it's like to operate as a journalist in a country where the government censors stories that are sent out of the country via satellite, and restricts the foreign news footage that comes in.
  • Hillary Profita

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