Journalists covering a tour of the Pacific by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) say they have been blocked from filming or accessing events, and that not a single question from a Pacific journalist has been allowed.
The allegations raise serious press freedom concerns and alarm about the ability of Pacific journalists to do their jobs, particularly as the relationship between the region and China becomes closer.
Wang is midway through a marathon trip visiting eight nations in 10 days. He has held bilateral meetings in the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji to date, with trips to Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor to come.
At each stop, Wang has signed bilateral deals, but he is yet to take a single question from a Pacific journalist, who are instructed at the beginning of the news conferences that no questions would be permitted.
Lice Movono, a Fijian journalist who has written for the Guardian, said that during the Fiji leg of the tour she witnessed multiple attempts by Chinese officials to limit journalists’ ability to cover the event.
“From the very beginning there was a lot of secrecy, no transparency, no access given,” Movono said.
She said that journalists who had been granted permission to cover the visit — including her — had their media passes revoked without explanation, and that she and her camera operator were ordered by police to leave the lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, where they were set to film the beginning of the meeting between Wang and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on Monday.
On Sunday, as media set up to film the arrival of Wang at the Pacific Islands Forum building for a meeting with its secretary-general, Henry Puna, Australian Broadcasting Corp was blocked from filming, despite having been given permission to do so.
The Pacific Islands Forum intervened to allow the filming to continue, but Movono said that Chinese officials stood in front of the camera, trying to block the shot.
Movono said that the joint news conference from Wang and Bainimarama on Monday afternoon was managed by Chinese officials.
“The media briefing itself was run by the visiting government, the press passes were issued by the Chinese government,” she said. “They instructed us we would not be allowed to ask questions. When some of us yelled out questions anyway a Chinese government official yelled out to stop.”
Movono said that when a journalist had called out questions, he was ordered to leave the room and a minder attempted to escort him out before fellow journalists stepped in to defend him.
“I was quite disturbed by what I saw,” Movono said. “When you live in Fiji you kind of get used to the militarized nature of the place, but to see the Chinese officials do that was quite disturbing... To be a journalist in Fiji is to be worried about imprisonment all the time. Journalism is criminalized. You can be jailed or the company you work for can be fined a crippling amount that can shut down the operation ... but to see foreign nationals pushing you back in your own country, that was a different level.”
At Wang’s first stop in the Solomon Islands, the Media Association of Solomon Islands boycotted coverage of the visit because many journalists were blocked from attending Wang’s news conference, with COVID-19 restrictions cited as the reason.
At Wang’s stops in Kiribati, Samoa and Fiji, no questions have been allowed at the news conferences held by political leaders announcing bilateral deals.
Shailendra Singh, associate professor of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, said the lack of access raised many questions.
“The lack of journalists access to the foreign minister is deeply troubling. It goes against the democratic principles of the countries in the region and role of the media in a free society,” Singh said. “Are our governments keeping the media out on their own accord, or on the request of the Chinese? What next? Will media also be barred from asking our local politicians and leaders questions? It’s a worrying trend that needs to stop.”
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