BEIJING – The government is intensifying efforts to control foreign media coverage of China, blocking websites, harassing reporters trying to cover trials of activists in Beijing and thwarting efforts by The New York Times to station new journalists on the mainland.
The government under President Xi Jinping has taken an increasingly hard line on controlling information within the country as its traditional means of doing so come under threat from social media and mobile Internet messaging services.
Although foreign media reports are aimed mostly at audiences outside China, the moves against international journalists reflect both wariness of their reports seeping into the domestic audience and sensitivity about the country's reputation abroad. This is especially so following reports in recent years about the wealth accumulated by relatives of top Communist Party leaders.
"International coverage is no longer simply damaging to China's international image," said David Bandurski, a researcher with the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "It's also damaging to China's domestic image of the ruling party."
China last week blocked access on the mainland to the websites of several European and North American news outlets that participated in or carried reports of an investigation that showed the relatives of China's president and other business and political leaders were linked to offshore tax havens.
In the past week, police and plainclothes security officers harassed reporters in Beijing who staked out courthouses where grassroots activists of the New Citizens movement were on trial, pushing them away from the buildings and confiscating press cards.
In addition to such rough treatment, foreign reporters working in China also generally deal with official intimidation of interviewees as well as bars on going to Tibet or troubled parts of ethnic minority regions.
In recent years, however, the government has added a new form of pressure, press freedom groups say, by delaying or denying journalism visas for organizations whose coverage it dislikes. China says it handles the foreign media according to its laws.
Austin Ramzy, a reporter who left Time magazine to work for the Times last April, is set to leave China on Thursday because authorities have not approved his application for a resident journalist visa.
Ramzy will be the second Times reporter in 13 months to leave the mainland over visa issues after Chris Buckley, a reporter who joined the Times' China team in 2012, similarly departed for Hong Kong at the end of that year. The Times' designated China bureau chief Philip Pan has been waiting for a journalist visa since early 2012.
The Times' visa woes come despite U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's efforts last month to raise the problems faced by journalists working for U.S. news organizations in China in his talks with Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and other officials while on a visit to Beijing.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said U.S. officials have contacted Chinese officials at the highest levels repeatedly to raise the treatment of journalists and media organizations, including that they expected visas to be issued for U.S. outlets.
The Chinese government late last year delayed the annual visa renewal applications for reporters working for the Times and Bloomberg, seen as retaliation for the outlets' investigative stories on the enormous wealth accumulated by the relatives of Xi and former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
The visas eventually were issued for the companies' journalists already based in China, weeks later than for many other news outlets. But Ramzy, a new hire, did not get one.
The Foreign Ministry denied that Ramzy was being forced to leave China, saying Monday that he had violated Chinese regulations by not applying to amend his visa after the cancellation of the press credentials he held under Time magazine. Chinese regulations say that to be done within 10 days of the cancellation.
Spokesman Qin Gang said despite Ramzy's violation, the ministry gave him an additional month-long nonworking visa on humanitarian grounds.
Qin said the ministry was still processing the Times' application for Ramzy's press credentials but that it would not be completed before his visa expired Friday.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Mat Pennington contributed from Washington, D.C.