NEW YORK—The assault and coerced confession of a BBC camera crew in rural China, just days before China’s National People’s Congress, is a violation of clearly established rules allowing journalists to travel and report freely in the country and an effort to suppress coverage of sensitive subjects, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Friday, March 3, BBC journalist John Sudworth and his crew attempted to meet with Chinese villager Yang Linghua in Hunan Province. Sudworth intended to interview Yang about her plan to travel to the upcoming National People’s Congress—China’s annual parliamentary session—to petition them for justice in a land dispute that led to the death of her father. However, upon arriving to meet Yang, Sudworth and his crew were assaulted by a large group that smashed the team’s cameras. Sudworth and his team were then prevented from leaving while uniformed police officers and officials from the local foreign affairs office forced the crew to delete some of their footage. The officials also forced the news crew to sign a coerced confession admitting to “behavior causing a bad impact” and attempting to conduct an “illegal interview.”

Under the 2008 Regulations on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists, foreign journalists are allowed to travel freely within China and to conduct interviews freely as long as the interviewee gives consent. As PEN America has previously analyzed in its September 2016 report Darkened Screen: Constraints on Foreign Journalists in China, Chinese local officials in rural areas may sometimes be unaware of, or claim to be unaware of, these regulations allowing free travel for the press and attempt to block the press from traveling or conducting interviews.

“The attack on a BBC camera crew, and the coercion of these journalists to confess to an ‘illegal interview,’ is a startling example of how newsgathering from foreign organizations is increasingly seen by Chinese authorities as hostile and unwelcome,” said James Tager, Free Expression Programs Manager at PEN America. “Foreign press in China is vitally important, partially because they can tell the stories that Chinese media are often blocked from telling. If foreign media are threatened for trying to tell the stories of people like Yang Linghua, then these stories may never reach the public sphere.”

PEN America, the literature and free expression advocacy organization, has long engaged in advocacy for free expression and against censorship in China. These efforts include advocacy on behalf of individual imprisoned writers, including Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and prominent Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, both of whom are recipients of PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award. PEN America’s reporting on China includes Darkened Screen, a comprehensive examination of pressures against foreign reporters within the country.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Sarah Edkins, Director of Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1.646.779.4830