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Little Freedom of Press

I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter From Asia comes from Beijing.

Being a foreign correspondent in this country comes with its own dangers. We are often denied permission to travel, or arrested and detained when we shoot stories. To see how widespread this is, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China polled it's members recently.

Their survey showed 72 incidents in the last two years. Eight of those involved physical harassment and in 21, notes or videotapes were confiscated.

Melinda Liu is president of the correspondent's group, as well as bureau chief for Newsweek magazine based here in Beijing.

"I think they're afraid of having an external value system forced on them," Liu says. "They continue to say we respect human rights but we don't have the same definition that the west does. Chinese authorities will always say, human rights for us is, 'people have enough to eat. People have a roof over their head.'"

But as foreign reporters, the worst we face is being detained or tossed out of the country. But we can't operate here without help from Chinese who work with us, or who are sources. They can be badly treated for helping us out.

Like Zhao Yan, a researcher here for the New York Times, jailed for three years.

"The thing that really haunts us, someone who talks to us or helps us – a Chinese – might, you know, be…face something much, much worse than simply getting roughed up a little bit," explains Yan. "They could be put in jail. They could end up being paralyzed like this poor guy who talked to the German media. That I think is rising in terms of urgency and priority."

When China campaigned for the 2008 Olympics, it promised total freedom for the foreign press. And those covering just sports will probably get just that, reporting from the massive new stadiums still under construction. Not so those looking at China's faults

"I think those of us who want to do political, social or even longer term environmental pieces, not too tightly linked to the timing of the games, we're still going to face some issues," Liu says.

But don't expect a lot of interviews with dissidents. Officials will use the playbook in force with every big Communist Party event in Beijing- get them out of town.

"Those dissidents, those activists, those unhappy protestors, they're going to be gone," exclaims Liu. "They will be either so intimidated they will not come out of their homes because they've been warned if you talk, bad things will happen, or they will be physically removed from the city."

The funny thing was when China installed a crop of younger leaders, the sense was that more liberal times were coming for China and for the press. Like many such expectations of change in China, at least for those us in the foreign press corps, the reality is just the opposite.
by Barry Petersen

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