File photo shows foreign reporters and writers rushing to obtain a translation version of NPC Political Activities report after the Chinese National People's Congress ended at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2019. Photo: AFP / Jun Yasukawa / The Yomiuri Shimbun

China has used extra surveillance and restrictions ostensibly imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic to block the work of foreign reporters already struggling with threats of detention and punitive visa restrictions, a press group said Monday.

As the country has largely brought the coronavirus outbreak under control since it emerged in late 2019, Beijing has raced to promote an official narrative of heroism and success in its early handling of the pandemic. 

“As China’s propaganda machine struggled to regain control of the narrative around this public health disaster, foreign press outlets were repeatedly obstructed in their attempts to cover the pandemic,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said in its annual report, based on a survey of 150 of its 220 members.

“China has used the pandemic as yet another way to control journalists.”

Strict Covid-19 measures have been regularly used to block or threaten reporters, the media group said, with some 42 percent of respondents saying they had been made to leave an area or denied access for health and safety reasons. 

The FCCC said journalists were asked to comply with measures that were not required of others, and that the introduction of coronavirus checkpoints and contact tracing apps had created “additional opportunities for Chinese authorities to gather data and surveil foreign journalists and their sources.”

Sources like medical staff in the central city of Wuhan – where Covid-19 first surfaced – were interrogated by authorities or warned against accepting interviews, reporters said.

For a third straight year, none of the respondents said working conditions had improved.

Asked about the report Monday, a Chinese official said that it was “presumptuous, alarmist and has zero factual basis.”

“We have always welcomed media and journalists from all countries to carry out interviews and reporting in China, in accordance with laws and regulations,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.

“We oppose ideological prejudice targeting China, the concoction of fake news under the pretext of so-called media freedom, and behavior that violates journalistic ethics.”

The FCCC said that, as relations worsened between China and several western countries, 2020 also saw “the largest expulsion of foreign journalists since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre more than three decades ago.” 

In the second half of the year, foreign journalists became “pawns in a diplomatic spat” when state security officers told two Australian media correspondents they were barred from leaving the country, it noted.

The pair sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions before fleeing the country.

Since September, authorities stopped issuing new press cards to US news organisations’ correspondents as relations worsened between the two countries, the FCCC said.

The survey also warned that foreign news outlets have been targeted in disinformation campaigns by state media, including claims that their interviewees were paid actors.