Getting a foreign journalist visa in China was easier last year than in previous years, according to a survey by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC), but authorities continue to punish reporters and media organisations by withholding visas if they don't like their coverage.
"In general, the visa renewal process went more smoothly this year than last, when New York Times and Bloomberg reporters were made to wait until the last moment for their visas," said the FCCC in the executive summary of the annual report.
“We are disturbed, however, to find that the Chinese authorities are continuing to abuse the press card and visa renewal process in a political manner, treating journalistic accreditation as a privilege rather than a professional right, and punishing reporters and media organisations for the content of their previous coverage if it has displeased the government,” it said.
Since coming to power in late 2012, President Xi Jinping has come down hard on press freedom, and the Chinese government is particularly annoyed about coverage of the fortunes earned by the families of the senior leaders.
Every year, foreign correspondents in China have to renew their journalist visas. Until two years ago, this process involved getting press credentials renewed by the foreign ministry, then handing in one's passport to the Public Security Bureau to get the journalist visa, a process that took about eight working days.
In late 2014, the process was changed, and it now takes more than three weeks – the foreign ministry process takes longer, and the Public Security Bureau now requires 15 working days to process the visa.
Nearly half of survey respondents said their work was seriously impeded by the requirement that they leave their passports with the police for three weeks or more.
In some cases, journalists were warned by the police that if they did not change their coverage to paint a more positive image of China, they would not be granted a new visa.
Among the events that Beijing-based foreign journalists were unable to attend because of the lengthy visa renewal process were the Hong Kong protests, Japanese general elections, the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami anniversary and the terrorist attack on a cafe in Sydney.
All of those surveyed got their foreign ministry press cards within the stipulated 12-day period; and 93 per cent were issued with their residence visas within the 15 working days that the entry-exit police had said would be necessary.
“But 10 reporters said they had been threatened with the cancellation or non-renewal of their visas, either in the course of their work or when they sought to renew their visas at the end of the year, because of the content of their reports,” said the FCCC.