Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Mess we Leave Behind

Journalism in China is far from free. Local Chinese journalists are intimidated, fined and even arrested without Due Process and in some cases can remain in jail for months or years without ever being formally charged. Being a journalist in China almost as dangerous as working in a coal mine.

While the above statement may be true for local journalist, for foreign journalists living in China the rules are very different.

We have some restrictions, like we are supposed to report to various officials when we travel, but few people do. In a sense, we are basically free and clear to document China as we see fit. Of course there are obstacles and obstructions and delays and local thugs who try to intimidate, but for the most part we can go almost anywhere and see almost anything. Military sites, some border areas and anything to do with the inner workings of the government are still off limits.

However, in China, it is never as easy as it sounds. And while foreign journalists can get away from the bureaucracy, most often it is our assistants and translators and fixers that take the heat. This poses a lot of problems both professionally and morally.

Professionally its a shame. The governments puts a lot of pressure on our assistants and tries to intimidate them. And eventually it forces some people to just stop working with us. This has been become even more of an issue since the NYTimes assistant was arrested two years ago and is still being held on a bogus charge of corruption. Without due process and a just legal system in China, few local assistants are willing to push, and really who can blame them. They have have to support their families in many cases.

Morals come in to play a lot as well, specially on the road. Often in remote areas I rely on local fixers and translators who are knowledgable and who can speak the local dialects. They are innocent folks, often freelance tour guides and such who are keen to string together a few days of work, and practice their English.

On a recent trip to Kashgar my fixer and translator was a great help. He was a freelance tour guide and a local taxi driver. He had a wife and a three year old son. We worked together for about seven days. He assisted my writing partner and I on two stories: one about AIDS in the Kashgar region and another was a travel story. After that he traveled with me to the border of Pakistan in what was one of the greatest adventures I have taken in my five years in China. When I returned to Kashgar to catch my flight back out to Shanghai my fixer contacted me and told me that he had been detained by the local public security bureau. He was held over night, he was intimidated and was asked of everything that we did, everyone we talked to and everywhere we visited. He was worried, scared and angry.

I was furious. While the desperate actions by the Public Security Bureau are to be expected in China. I was perhaps let my guard down and thought that China was in many ways moving beyond this paranoia. When you live in China, like I have been doing for the last five years, you can often get caught up in how much the country is changing and how it is, in many cases, progressing; then an experience like this brings you back down to earth and shows you that no matter how glossy things look on the surface, it's still a big nasty mess just beyond the shinny skyscrapers of Shanghai.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

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Ryan Pyle