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U.S. Puts New Restrictions On China State-Run Media Journalists

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

First, it was a trade war, and now the U.S. and China are attacking the messengers. The State Department is placing restrictions on Chinese news organizations operating in America. The new quotas will affect five Chinese state outlets. They'll be forced to cut about a third of their Chinese employees based here in the U.S. This move comes after China canceled the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters. The Foreign Ministry accused the paper of publishing a racist opinion piece.

So what are the consequences for journalists in both countries? Steven Butler is with us this morning in studio. He's the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thanks so much for coming in.

STEVEN BUTLER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this action was meant to, quote, "establish a long-overdue level playing field." What do you make of this decision?

BUTLER: I think it's highly risky.

MARTIN: Why?

BUTLER: The Chinese, of course, for a long time, have taken a very harsh line, very harsh measures against foreign journalists operating inside the country. And at the same time, these Chinese news organizations and media operations have large staffs here and are able to operate freely. So the situation is grossly unfair. So there is not a level playing field.

MARTIN: Right.

BUTLER: But for the U.S. to place really severe restrictions like this on Chinese media organizations and think that the Chinese will not somehow retaliate in their own way, I think it's naive.

MARTIN: But doesn't it just perpetuate this cycle? I mean, as you just acknowledged - and the Committee to Protect Journalists, your organization, lists China as the worst offender when it comes to putting journalists behind bars. I mean, should there not be some accountability for this imbalance, for China's treatment of foreign reporters?

BUTLER: I think, in principle, it's absolutely right. There should be accountability. There should be a way to establish a level playing field. But frankly, doing it now, in the midst of a global health crisis, where we depend on the ability of foreign journalists in China to go out and report accurately on what's going on because we can't trust what the Chinese media is saying, the timing really couldn't be worse.

MARTIN: If these kind of retaliatory actions aren't the answer, what do you think is? Is it just about timing for you, to just need to wait till these current crises are over? Because there's always another crises.

BUTLER: Well, I think, you know, at the end of the day, the way to fight untruth is with more truth. If there are restrictions on free speech, you fight it by having - by opening up and having more transparency, make it clear what the Chinese are doing here, and avoid situations where you end up in this escalating tit-for-tat exchange. Now, it could be that, in the long run, there is some payoff. But it's very risky, and I'm quite doubtful because the Chinese really would like to look for an excuse to put even more pressure and restrictions on journalists in China.

MARTIN: Just briefly, is there anything the U.S. can do right now to improve the standing of American journalists in China, to change how those reporters are seen by the government?

BUTLER: Well, I think they - there has to be support at the very highest level of the government, I mean, from the president. We haven't seen that anywhere, really, that he has stood up for freedom of the press and the rights of journalists. That could possibly make a big difference.

MARTIN: Steven Butler is the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.

BUTLER: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.