China on Tuesday moved to strip the press passes of American reporters at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, as Beijing faces accusations of covering up the extent of the coronavirus health crisis.
Journalists from the three outlets whose press credentials are set to expire in 2020 will be required to return their press passes within ten days rather than having them renewed.
“They will not be allowed to continue working as journalists in the People’s Republic of China, including its Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement released Tuesday.
The decision is ostensibly retaliation for what the Chinese government called “outrageous treatment” of Chinese journalists by the U.S. and the designation of five Chinese media agencies as “foreign missions,” essentially state-backed propaganda arms of China’s Communist Party.
“In recent years, the U.S. government has placed unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the U.S., purposely made things difficult for their normal reporting assignments, and subjected them to growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression,” read a statement from a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
China will request written information from those three American newspapers as well as Voice of America and Time magazine about their staff, finance, operation and real estate in China. The country also said it will take “reciprocal measures” against American journalists in response to “discriminatory restrictions” China says the U.S. has imposed on Chinese journalists regarding visa, administrative review, and reporting.
The Wall Street Journal slammed the move in a statement, Editor in Chief Matt Murray, calling it an “unprecedented attack on freedom of the press” that “comes at a time of unparalleled global crisis.”
“Trusted news reporting from and about China has never been more important,” Murray said. “We oppose government interference with a free press anywhere in the world. Our commitment to reporting fully and deeply on China is unchanged.”
The Washington Post likewise condemned “any action by China to expel U.S. reporters.”
“The Chinese government’s decision is particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, when clear and reliable information about the international response to covid-19 [coronavirus] is essential,” Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement. “Severely limiting the flow of that information, which China now seeks to do, only aggravates the situation.”
Shani George, director of communications at the Washington Post, said in an email that the newspaper is “not yet sure whether it will affect everyone we have there.”
The New York Times denounced the decision as well, calling it “especially irresponsible” during the coronavirus pandemic and saying they “remain committed” to covering China, where the paper said it has more journalists than anywhere else outside the United States.
Executive Editor Dean Baquet urged the U.S. and China to “move quickly to resolve this dispute,” as the “health and safety of people around the world depend on impartial reporting about its two largest economies, both of them now battling a common epidemic.”
“It is a grave mistake for China to move backwards and cut itself off from several of the world’s top news organizations,” Baquet said.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, blasted China’s decision, saying it shows that Chinese president Xi Jinping is “terrified of a free and independent press because he doesn’t want to be challenged when his government regularly spews insane propaganda.”
“Chairman Xi can expel all the real journalists he wants, but he can’t change the fact that his coronavirus cover-up killed thousands of his own people and put the world at risk,” Sasse said.
The coronavirus pandemic began in Wuhan, China and has spread across the globe, infecting over 190,000 people and killing over 7,000. The U.S. currently has over 5,000 confirmed cases and at least 93 people have died.
China has attempted to pin blame for the virus on the U.S., a Chinese diplomat promoting a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the virus to China.