CHINA> National
Zero refusal for foreign reporters
By Li Xiaokun (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-14 07:07

* China is serious about the new mindset, realizing that it will lead to more objective reports on the country, said a senior official.

Government ministries will be pushed to give better access to foreign journalists in a policy called "zero refusal", a senior official of the State Council Information Office (SCIO) said yesterday.

"Zero refusal means that the ministries must designate people to deal with calls and interview requests from foreign media and that they have to give a response within 24 hours or the period they prescribed, no matter what the result is," Guo Weimin, director of the SCIO press department, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

"It doesn't mean all applications will be accepted, but we have to tell the media how we handled it, so they can understand," he said.

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China gave unprecedented access to foreign journalists in 2007, under a set of provisional regulations for the Beijing Olympics Games in 2008.

The government, for instance, saved journalists from the troublesome procedure of seeking permission for interviews from local governments; instead they only needed an agreement with the person being interviewed.

It also lifted a ban on the hiring of Chinese citizens to help with reporting. Such changes were cemented after the Games.

The changes have been greeted favorably by the more than 700 foreign reporters working in China.

So far, the reforms are mainly having an effect at ministries closely followed by the media, including the ministries of health, education and public security, as well as the SCIO itself, Guo said.

"We hope all ministries will welcome interaction with the foreign media," said the director. "If they find calls to ministries unanswered, or are met with a cold manner, they can complain to us."

Guo said the SCIO is also trying to train major local officials and press officers, from provincial to county levels, to accept and facilitate the work of foreign media.

Local governments are being asked to provide relevant sources and basic local information when the overseas media ask for help, Guo said.

All ministries and provinces have been urged to allow overseas media and those from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan to attend their press conferences.

Beijing's open attitude in the reporting of the riots in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, in July reflected the changes in China's media policy, Guo said.

Half a day after the situation calmed down in Urumqi, a press conference was held in the city, with footage of the riots provided, while all overseas journalists based in Beijing received notice to prepare for an immediate flight to Xinjiang.

The director, however, admitted he still faces complaints from the foreign media, ranging from boring press conferences to disturbances in local interviews.

The SCIO is trying to guide local governments to receive the foreign media doing critical reports who intend no harm, he said.

"And foreign reporters can call local government's information offices when meeting with difficulties. The problems will be properly handled, as long as their interviews are reasonable and legal. Foreign reporters are safe to work in China."

China is serious about the new mindset, realizing that it will lead to more objective reports on the country, Guo said.

Phil Smith, chief of the North Asia bureau of Reuters News, said the move is a good thing "to everyone's concern".

The media veteran said he did not expect busy officials to drop everything to deal with interviews, but the SCIO's efforts to persuade ministries to handle interview requests on a regular basis certainly deserves applause.

"It will allow more transparency and openness, and get perhaps to another level in the relationship between the foreign press and ministries. Anything that really makes our job easier is going to be better," he said.

The chief of a Japanese media's Beijing bureau, who declined to be named due to rules of his organization, said that in the past they found it difficult to do interviews in China.

"A more transparent China will do good to its image among reporters around the globe, as its policies and economy have become the focus around the world," he said.

Cheng Mei, a professor of communication at Renmin University of China, said allowing access to press conferences in Chinese provinces would test local officials' ability to respond to sharp questions from foreign reporters. "This pushes officials at the grassroots level to know the local situation thoroughly before responding to foreign media," Cheng said.

Wang Linyan contributed to the story