Chinese Journalists Won’t Report on Falun Gong Protests

By Diane S.W. Lee


John Hook/Civil Beat

It sounded like an easy assignment from my editor: embed with Chinese journalists covering the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Follow Chinese journalists for a day. I would tell what their day was like covering the APEC meeting in Hawaii in both a story and video.

I had an advantage, because I am Chinese and I look like them. I would have something to talk to them about, because I’ve traveled to Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Beijing. I could show off my fluent Chinese language skills in Cantonese. I could ask them if they’ve been to Chinatown yet, whether they wanted any recommendations for places to eat. It would be a fun assignment!

But my mission was a lot harder than I expected.

I started off introducing myself to journalists in the Hawaii Convention Center’s press room. I tried to strike up a conversation: “Aloha, how are you? I’m Diane, with the local media. How is your stay here so far? Where are you from?”

On Tuesday I met journalists working for Chinese and Japanese media from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. No luck. My editor wanted me to find foreign journalists, who were from China. I would try again the next day. And the following day after that.

Eventually, I met a couple of journalists from China. Most spoke Mandarin, but some spoke Cantonese.

I clicked right away with one Chinese journalist who wanted to know more about Civil Beat. I showed the journalist our website. Photos from a Falun Gong protest were the centerpiece on our front page. At the time, I was working on another video story about international journalists and their experiences in Hawaii. I asked if the journalist could share impressions of Hawaii. It would be a simple conversation.

I was surprised the journalist declined to talk to me. The fact that Falun Gong photos was on our website, it would give a bad impression.

“Seriously?” I asked.

The journalist told me an agency monitors the Chinese media coverage. So the journalist was hesitant to talk.

I asked the same of two other Chinese journalists I spent some time getting to know. I eventually asked if I could follow them around and write about their experiences as Chinese journalists in Hawaii. They didn’t want their names or faces to appear in print or online. They told me the Chinese media are under close watch by the government. Their jobs would be at stake if they said anything wrong.

At another Chinese news organization, they just kept telling me to come back. I did. But they didn’t seem willing to talk. A journalist with a different Chinese news organization said approval from a boss in China was needed before Civil Beat could follow them.

When I arrived at the Hawaii Convention Center around 10 a.m. on Friday, I saw a group of about 50 people in bright yellow T-shirts identifying themselves as Falun Gong. They stood behind barriers surrounding the convention center. They held large banners. One read: “Chinese Communist Party: STOP Killing Falun Gong.” I made my way to the protesters and started recording video. I talked to some of them who were hoping to grab the attention of China’s President Hu Jintao. Their message to the president was simple: “Falun Gong is good.” I knew that Falun Gong is a practice that is banned in China. When I told the protesters I was a journalist, they perked up.

“I’m with the local media,” I told them.

It didn’t seem to matter where I was from. They yearned for any media coverage.

“Did any journalists from China come to interview you yet?”

Nope, a protester told me.

I wanted to find out for myself. I made my way back to the press room inside the convention center.

I asked a Chinese journalist I had talked to earlier if the story about Falun Gong protests would be something of interest.

“Where?” the journalist asked.

I told the journalist the protesters were right outside the convention center. They’re from Falun Gong.

“I can’t,” the journalist said.

The words “Falun Gong” were taboo for Chinese journalists.

The journalist who needed approval from a boss later told me that protests weren’t something they covered. As American journalists, our press freedom is protected. It made me realize that I could easily take the freedom of the press for granted.

When I left the convention center to head back to the office and edit my Falun Gong video, one of the protesters stopped me and asked if I was a journalist. I had taken video footage of him holding a banner earlier.

He thanked me for telling his group’s story.

I thought to myself: I’m just doing my job.