Media freedom in China is declining at “breakneck speed”, according to a report by a group representing foreign journalists in the country.
The report by the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) of China said journalists there face physical assaults, hacking, online trolling and visa denials.
Local journalists in mainland China and Hong Kong are also being targeted.
China has labelled the FCC an “illegal organisation”.
It comes as the world’s media turn their attention to the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is already under scrutiny due to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and a crackdown in Hong Kong.
The report found that foreign journalists are being harassed so severely by the state that a handful of correspondents have left mainland China. Others have been forced to come up with emergency exit plans as a precaution.
Chinese colleagues of foreign reporters have also faced intimidation with authorities harassing their families, the report said.
Other reporters such as Australian Cheng Lei and Chinese national Haze Fan have been detained for over a year over allegations of being involved in state security cases.
“Continued zero-Covid policies, staffing issues, rising geopolitical tensions, growing mistrust, and at times outright hostility towards Western media in China create a perfect storm,” said one editor quoted by the report.
Sources have also been harassed and intimidated, with many cancelling at the last minute due to pressure from authorities.
“One of my sources was detained and sentenced to prison after forwarding me a screenshot. It was a deeply traumatising ordeal, and I have no idea when he will get out,” the report quoted one journalist as saying.
Authorities have also used the pandemic as a way to delay reporting trips and approvals for new journalist visas, the FCC said. This has left bureaus with staffing issues, impacting how they have been able to report on the country.
For reporters attempting to cover Xinjiang – the controversial region that is home to many of China’s Uyghurs – 88% of respondents said they had been followed. China’s government has been accused of committing genocide against the Uyghurs, something it denies.
One reporter said they were accosted by men in plainclothes who physically assaulted them. “The videographer and I both got hit in the face, my lip was bleeding and they confiscated some of our equipment,” they added.
In 2021, the BBC’s China correspondent John Sudworth, who heavily reported on Xinjiang, left the country for Taiwan. He and his family were followed to the airport and into the check-in area by plainclothes police officers.
China has hit back at previous claims by the FCC that journalists were being harassed, claiming that the group has no sense of right and wrong and lacks principles.
“Foreign journalists in China should feel lucky,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last year.