Toronto Star reporter detained, interrogated in China

Toronto Star reporter Bill Schiller was recently detained and interrogated by Chinese police after he took a photo of a woman being surrounded by plainclothes police in Beijing.

The woman was attending a planned outdoor Sunday service held by a group of Chinese Christians — a rare moment, considering the church worships without the OK of the Communist party, and one any journalist would want to capture.  

Schiller writes about the experience in the Star:

“The woman hesitated for a moment and seemed to totter. Then several men, who also looked like plainclothes police, surrounded her and corralled her toward the van. Just as she was getting in and about to be driven off, I decided to take a picture. That’s when police surrounded me.”

Schiller says he was filmed and photographed; police also took his passport, his journalist’s visa, and his press card. When Schiller asked under what law or regulation he was being detained, he got one, repeated response: “I will tell you.”

“I was not roughed up,” Schiller writes, “but a group of police held, pulled and ‘guided’ me out from the plaza where the aborted service was supposed to take place … Finally, I was seated in a tiny room, a camera was set up and turned on, one policeman sat at a desk to take notes, another asked questions and a third observed. I asked if I could tape the interrogation and was told that I could not.”

When Schiller asked if he was being detained, he was told that he wasn’t. But “it was made plain — in no uncertain terms — that I was not going anywhere.”

According to Schiller, the police were stuck on the idea that he had broken Chinese media restrictions by taking a photo of the woman (and others at the service) without getting the required permission from the photograph’s subjects, which included Chinese authorities.

In China, reporters must have permission from the person and (when relevant) the organization the person works for in order to conduct an interview. But Schiller was taking photos, right, not conducting an interview? There is currently debate over what the term found in regulations, “cai fang”, translates as — interview vs. the whole range of journalistic activity.

In this case, police eventually demanded Schiller delete the photos he’d taken at the service.

He writes:

“I was not keen to comply. But I also understood that I had none of the rights that I would have in a similar situation in Canada or the United States or any Western country for that matter. In such countries, I wouldn’t expect to be kept in a room in a private building either for showing up at an event and taking a photograph.”

Eventually, after three hours of being detained and interrogated, Schiller was released — but without his press card. In a follow-up article, Schiller writes he later got the card back, along with a stern warning that “further violations” could lead to punishment, including cancelling his journalist’s visa.