Criticise China at your peril, could be the message that Ursula Gauthier should have heeded. The French journalist, however, maintains that she has not done anything wrong. As she told the Associated Press, “they [the Chinese authorities] want a public apology for things I have not written. They are accusing me of things that I have not written.” But what are these things?
Ursula Gauthier, a French journalist for the French news magazine, l’Obs, wrote a report in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th in which she accused the Chinese authorities of using the terrorist attacks to cover up their repression of its Uighur population. Ms. Gauthier wrote instead that “pushed to the limit, a small group of Uighurs armed with cleavers set upon a coal mine and its Han Chinese workers, probably in revenge for an abuse, an injustice or an expropriation.”
It was this claim that the Chinese authorities tried to jump on the Paris attacks bandwagon that got a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry to say that the journalist was no longer “suitable” for her job, and she was accused by the authorities of “hurting Chinese people’s feelings with wrong and hateful actions and words” for which it was demanded that she apologised.
This is not the first time China has been prickly to the spotlight being shone on the skeletons in its closet. Journalists from Al-Jazeera, The New York Times and Bloomberg News have been denied visas for having reported on the country’s secret prisons or on the fortunes of the heads of the ruling party.
The news magazine has stood by its reporter who has been summoned to leave the country by December 31st. The French government, through its foreign ministry, issued a statement yesterday in which it deplored the Chinese authorities’ government.
“France would like to remind how important it is for journalists to be able to work everywhere in the world,” the statement read.
It remains to be seen if china will come back on its decision, and even if it does as it did when it re-issued journalists from The New York Times and Bloomberg News with new visas, it could make reporting difficult for the journalist. For instance, these two news outlets are blocked. The president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Peter Ford, has complained that there is “a general sense of official mistrust of outsiders.”
China has always applied restrictions on the work of journalists in the country, and even where it issued visas, it has sought to control the work of the foreign correspondents. Jaime FlorCruz, the Beijing bureau chief for CNN, recalls that not only did foreign journalists need government permission to leave the capital, but official minders made it difficult to interact with ordinary Chinese. “Figuring out how to shrug off your handlers and get several minutes to do what you wanted becomes an art.” For the veteran journalist, China is struggling to navigate its newfound status as an economic and diplomatic power, but it “needs thicker skin” because “being big also means you are in the spotlight, which includes figuring out how to take constructive criticism.”
Therefore, it remains to be seen if in the Ursula Gauthier’s case, China will take the advice of the veteran journalist.