Barry Petersen On The Brave New World Of Journalism In China

(CBS)
We asked CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen what covering China is like under the new rules put in place for foreign journalists in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. Read his report below. The accompanying photograph is a shot of local officials questioning the CBS News team. Pictured left to right: The provincial press office official, who did the questioning; Asia Producer Marsha Cooke; Petersen; and a uniformed policeman, who was there to add official presence and said nothing.

Article 6: To interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only obtain their prior consent.

--From the "Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists During the Beijing Olympic Games and Preparatory Period," taking effect on January 1, 2007 and expiring on October 17, 2008, a Decree of the State Council.

Next time you are involved in a ''misunderstanding'' with police, cite this article and say it was signed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

--From a piece written by Jonathan Watts for the newsletter of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China.

Welcome to a brave new world of journalism in China for foreign correspondents.

In the old days, before we could go anywhere outside Beijing, we needed permission from the receiving provincial press office, and they would check with the Beijing press office of the Foreign Ministry.

Anything controversial -- and half the time things that were not -- got turned down. Too busy, wrong time, no one available to help you. Go without permission and they could and would turn us around and put us back on a plane to Beijing.

Newspaper reporters could sometimes get away with travel, but TV crews are a lot more obvious. We need pictures to tell our stories, and that means a camera and that means we get spotted fast.

Now, in these new days, the word has spread: leave the foreign journalists alone, they do not need permission to be where they are.

Example: we just traveled to a couple of tiny villages in Sichuan Province without asking or telling any officials. People there are angry because a hydro-electric dam will soon be completed, and when it blocks the river and forms a reservoir, large parts of their towns will be under water.

People in one village claimed that local officials were cheating them out of land and not paying them enough to re-locate.

These are the same local officials who once decided if we would be allowed into the area. So a few months ago we would likely have been denied permission to visit.

This time – they found us alright, and a very young and very polite English-speaking official from the provincial government asked – nicely – what our story was about. He took down our names, foreign ministry press card and passport numbers, and that was it.

Thanks for the cooperation (he said) and no hint or effort to stop what we were doing.

Here's one better from a fellow television correspondent, whose team jumped a plane to cover a story about a woman who would not sell her house, and there it sat in the middle of a construction zone.

They went, they covered, they came back to Beijing and did their story.

The local press officials called him the next day NOT to complain, but to ask if he had everything he needed and could they be of any help in this story or on his next trip.

(Of course, and please keep this to yourself, there can be a journalistic downside – it used to really spice up a mediocre story to say you had been "detained by local authorities for x-number of hours." Extra, added drama…alas, no more.)

These rule changes were, in fact, promised by the Chinese as part of their bid for the 2008 Olympic games.

BUT – before we get all warm and fuzzy about this, take a look at that decree at the top of the page. It has a start date and it has an END date, after the Olympics, of October 17, 2007.

That could be the real test…after almost two years with relative openness, will the old rules come back to control us, and how will we journalists deal with that (not well, surely).

There will be good moments and some bad ones because China, like every nation, has some pretty seedy stories waiting to be told…about dissidents, religious persecution, government clampdowns.

But there will also be some wonderful stories that my colleagues and I will now get the tell, stories that were denied us simply as a matter of routine.

And the cool thing? You, the reader and TV watcher, will know exactly how we're doing by what we can now report.