The administration of President Donald Trump was right to confront China’s over its mistreatment of U.S. journalists.
Unfortunately, the State Department responded with the sort of tactic China uses to punish reporters, by curtailing visas of Chinese journalists working in the United States. The U.S. must defend the free press but do so without further restricting the press.
“If there is untruth, you combat it with truth,” Steven Butler, Asia program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told this editorial board. “If there are restrictions on the free press, you combat it with more freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”
Butler noted that the timing is terrible to enter a tit-for-tat over journalist visas, given the need for the U.S. and the rest of the world to learn more about what’s happening with the coronavirus in China.
On Feb. 19, China announced it was expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters, in response to an opinion article critical of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and questioning risks of its financial markets.
Last week, the State Department responded by announcing it would restrict the number of visas available to Chinese reporters in the U.S. to 100. Since China has about 160 journalists in the U.S., that effectively cancels visas of about 60 of them. Administration officials also hinted that further limits may be placed on visas.
Withholding visas is right out of China’s playbook for attempting to restrict and control foreign news coverage.
Authorities in China “are using visas as weapons against the press like never before, expanding their deployment of a longtime intimidation tactic as working conditions for foreign journalists markedly deteriorated in 2019,” according to a new report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.
China’s latest expulsions might also be a response to the Trump administration’s decision last month to characterize China’s top five news outlets as government entities, not journalism organizations. The State Department reportedly described them as part of China’s propaganda apparatus.
There may be truth to the department’s assertion, but that still doesn’t justify imposing press restrictions. The cure is worse than the disease. The Trump administration has also squandered much of its authority on this issue by repeatedly attacking U.S. news organizations and the press in general.
As the world’s leading champion of democracy, the U.S. should be modeling the tolerance and support for the free press upon which democracy depends.
The State Department must find better, more productive ways to respond to China’s press bullying.