Dear Obama, spare us the press-freedom lecturing

By Jack Shafer
January 31, 2014

Wearing his best straight face, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lectured China on press freedom yesterday. In a redundant official statement, he accused Beijing of restricting “the ability of journalists to do their work” and “imped[ing] their ability to do their jobs.”

If the Chinese cared about public opinion, they would have called a news conference of their own and read aloud from former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s comprehensive October report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which cataloged the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press. Downie found that although President Barack Obama promised a more open government, his administration has prosecuted sources under the Espionage Act, imposed delays on and denials of FOIA requests, and closed its doors on reporters, systematically blunting the press. And recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and the secret subpoena of reporters’ phone logs and emails have contributed to a climate of fear in some newsrooms.

Carney’s jawboning, in which he also called for the unblocking of Western news sites, was precipitated by the slowdown game China’s visa offices have been playing with U.S. foreign correspondents. Two New York Times reporters have had to leave the country in the past 13 months because their visa applications went unprocessed, and Bloomberg News’s China-based reporters “have also experienced visa delays,” the Times reports today. Nearly all observers agree that the slowdowns and denials directed at the Times can be attributed to its aggressive coverage of crony capitalism in China.

But Carney isn’t the only member of the Obama administration agitating for freedom of the press in China. The Times also reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “warned” Chinese leaders during his visit there last month that there would be consequences if the country continued its efforts to oust U.S. reporters. What consequences? Congress might get mad about it, Biden told the Chinese, and retaliate somehow.

The stifled laughter of the Chinese was not recorded, although I’m sure the country’s leaders and diplomats made Onion-esque jokes about Biden and his rhetorical pop-gun after he left earshot. It’s not much of a threat to tell the leaders of the world’s second-most powerful economy that your legislature, which can’t agree on anything, will soon arrive to tickle them if they don’t behave.

I imply no equivalence here between the Obama administration’s treatment of the press and that of the Chinese. Unlike China, the United States doesn’t deny press credentials and work visas to foreign reporters who muckrake here the way the Times did in China. But both sides rely on a passive-aggressive approach to tame and circumvent the press.

China doesn’t deport Times reporters for publishing scoops; it uses the visa process to starve them out. It doesn’t lock up Times reporters for their great work; it uses the Great Firewall to lock out the domestic audience from reading their stories. It doesn’t prohibit foreign reporters from travelling the country; it merely denies them permission to visit “sensitive” areas. (Not everybody in China has gotten the passive-aggressive memo: A CNN reporter got roughed up by Chinese security this month and spirited away while attempting to cover a Chinese activist’s trial.)

Likewise, the Obama administration hasn’t imprisoned any U.S. journalists — yet. New York Times reporter James Risen might end up in jail if he doesn’t reveal his sources in one of eight leak prosecutions/investigations since 2009. Nor has it strong-armed reporters, although from the looks of Downie’s report, national security reporters live in dread of getting themselves and their sources snared in a government surveillance dragnet. The administration hasn’t stoppered the flow of information from the government to reporters completely, but as one reporter told Downie, the leak investigations have left sources “scared to death,” frightened even to discuss unclassified information with reporters.

Downie will probably discount the passive part of my passive-aggressive analysis. Not prone to hyperbole, he writes in his report, “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in the Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”

While the hypocrisy vantage remains there for the Chinese to seize and to beat the Americans with, they’re continuing to do what they do best: stall and prevaricate. A foreign ministry spokesman issued a statement today claiming that Austin Ramzy, one of the Times reporters hung up in the visa dispute, had not adequately followed the laws and regulations governing work visas. “China expresses its displeasure,” the statement reads. “China does not accept the unjustifiable accusations by the U.S. side, and demands the U.S. side to respect facts and take cautious words and acts” and blah blah blah.

But who am I to second guess the Chinese? Their strategy seems to be the winning one. After all, if they accuse the United States of hypocrisy, that would put pressure on them to refrain from practicing hypocrisy, too.

That leaves only one constituency to pester the Obama administration about using the China example to argue for open government at home. That would be you and me.

******

In December, the knuckleheaded Washington Post editorial board recommended Biden-esque retaliation against Chinese journalists, stating, “But perhaps, if China continues to exclude and threaten American journalists, the United States should inject a little more symmetry into its visa policy.” Yeah, visa war — that will solve the problem. Send your brainless diplomatic fixes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. If only the Washington Post editorial board would block my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: January 2, 2014 photo illustration. REUTERS/Edgar Su

 

 

2 comments

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“China, where everything is illegal, and anything is possible.”

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Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

“I imply no equivalence here between the Obama administration’s treatment of the press and that of the Chinese…but…”

What a tool.

Posted by cwj | Report as abusive