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EDITORIAL | Suppression of Free Speech, Revoking Press Credentials, Aren’t the Way to Respond to the New Coronavirus




The Chinese government has revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal correspondents in Beijing, effectively expelling them from the country. The move, which came on February 19, is said to be in response to their newspaper’s opinion column on the new coronavirus, which Beijing viewed as problematic.


Responding to speech with speech is the norm of the international community, though. Revoking the press credentials of journalists for an opinion column in their employer’s publication represents an outright denial of the freedom of the press, a universal value.


The Xi Jinping administration has now directed the spear of its stepped-up suppression of speech related to the new coronavirus epidemic at foreign media that report on the real situation in China — a move that cannot be overlooked. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has issued a statement expressing deep concern and strong condemnation. We protest the Chinese action, too.


The opinion piece in question, which was written by an outside expert, was headlined, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Beijing denounced the wording of “sick man” as carrying “racist” connotations. Can this assertion be accepted as reasonable?


Pointing to the information coverup by local authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan when the world’s very first cases of the new coronavirus broke out, the column warned of economic and political consequences from the inevitable market turmoil caused by the poor response.


A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry denounced the column as “defaming” efforts of the Chinese government and people “to combat a coronavirus epidemic.” But that is not so. Moreover, the reporters punished by China are said to have had nothing to do with the column.


In an editorial following the expulsion of its reporters, The Wall Street Journal expressed concern that the paper’s reports on prisons in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong, as well as its editorials, would be the targets of China’s criticism someday.


Shortly before Beijing’s announcement of the revocation of the three Wall Street Journal reporters’ press credentials, Washington had designated five Chinese media organizations, including Xinhua News Agency, as political propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party. For this reason, the action against the three reporters also could be taken as a retribution for the U.S. move.


Washington’s designation of Chinese media organizations as government propaganda arms does not directly restrict the news coverage activities of those organizations in the United States. Referring to the Chinese decision to revoke press credentials, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Beijing, saying in a statement: “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions. The correct response is to present counter arguments, not restrict speech.


In China, faced with the greater-than-anticipated expansion of the new coronavirus epidemic, criticism of the government has emerged as people seek out accurate information. Beijing should not respond by expelling foreign journalists now.


The Japanese government has repeatedly said that Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan as a state guest, originally scheduled for April, will be realized. But there is no rationale for welcoming the top leader of a government that responds to the new coronavirus emergency by attacking freedom of the press.


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 Author: The Sankei Shimbun