HUNAN, March 3: A BBC camera crew reporting in China was attacked and later forced by police to apologize and sign a confession for trying to conduct an “illegal interview”, one of its reporters has said.
John Sudworth, a journalist with the BBC, and his team were attempting to interview a villager in rural China who claims her father was killed during a land dispute with the government. As they walked towards her house, a group of men blocked their way, pushed Sudworth and smashed and snatched the crew’s cameras.
“As soon as we arrived in Yang Linghua’s village it was clear they were expecting us,” Sudworth wrote in his account, referring to the woman the BBC wanted to interview.
Chinese publications face severe reporting restrictions and penalties for publishing stories the government dislikes, which range from articles being deleted to dismissal.
After the BBC’s cameras were smashed, the crew left the village but were chased and surrounded by 20 men whom the journalists described as “thugs”. Uniformed police and two members of the local government later arrived and “under the threat of further violence”, BBC reporters were forced to sign a confession apologizing for “behavior causing a bad impact” and delete some of the footage.
“It was a very one-sided negotiation, but it at least gave us a way out – a luxury denied to the petitioners who find themselves on the receiving end of similar intimidation and abuse,” Sudworth wrote.
The violence and confession were “my first in my long reporting experience in China”, he added.
The assault occurred in the run-up to the National People’s Congress, China’s annual meeting of its rubberstamp parliament. Yang has since been held under unofficial house arrest, according to the BBC.
While foreign news outlets can report on a wider range of topics, journalists often face harassment from police and government officials. Chinese security forces typically use plainclothes operatives to disrupting reporting of sensitive events, especially outside trials of human rights activists.
While the assault and being forced to sign a confession are unusual, the BBC journalists were treated comparatively lightly compared with Yang and others like her. Yang was due to travel to Beijing to petition the central government to intervene in her dispute with local authorities.
Millions of ordinary Chinese attempt to have higher officials intercede on their behalf, often as a last resort. Only a small number of cases are resolved and the more common results are stints in detention, beatings by the security services and a life of destitution.
This was not the first time Sudworth has encountered interference while reporting. In November, as China held elections for local representative bodies, Sudworth was met by a group of silent men who formed a wall in front of the home of a woman he was attempting to interview.
The men eventually pushed the BBC crew back to their car and they were forced to scrap the interview. Sudworth returned after the elections and was able to speak to the interviewee unmolested. THE GUARDIAN