CHINA has begun issuing media passes to New York Times (NYT) and Bloomberg journalists in a possible sign that the two American media outfits can continue operating here after weeks of uncertainty.
Several journalists told The Straits Times that they were informed by the Foreign Ministry yesterday to collect their media passes and proceed to get a residency permit, technically a visa, from the immigration authorities.
"We have received all of our China press cards and continue to operate as usual," a Bloomberg spokesman said.
About 24 journalists from NYT and Bloomberg had faced the possibility of having to leave China by the end of this month because of an unusual delay in residence permit renewal, prompting even US Vice-President Joe Biden to press top Chinese leaders on their behalf when he was here earlier this month.
While Beijing has delayed or denied visas to foreign reporters in the past, this is the first time that entire bureaus were affected, raising the spectre of a shutdown in the China operations for NYT and Bloomberg.
The delay was believed to be triggered by Beijing's anger over investigations by the media outlets into links between businesses and the kin of Chinese leaders.
Mr Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, welcomed the news but noted that some NYT correspondents have not received press cards yet.
"We hope that this development means the NYT reporters still awaiting their press cards will be given them soon and that all the reporters whose visa procedure is still under way will indeed be issued with 2014 residence visas," he told The Straits Times.
Foreign journalists have to first secure a press card from China's Foreign Ministry and then apply for a residency permit from immigration officials.
The renewal of press cards usually takes less than a week, but NYT and Bloomberg reporters waited more than a month.
The Straits Times understands that some reporters have started preparations to leave China. While getting a residency permit is usually a formality once a reporter is issued a media pass, some remain cautious. "When is there ever a guarantee?" an affected reporter said.
It is also uncertain whether immigration officials can process applications in time since it requires 15 working days under new rules from this year.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday there was no delay. "From what I understand, the processing is being done according to normal speed and procedures," she said.
Observers say the saga may reflect a change in Beijing's treatment of foreign media.
Hong Kong-based media analyst David Bandurski said China's leadership seems to think it is "no longer feasible to treat domestic and international news coverage on China as two distinct spheres with distinct audiences".
Given the growing reach of social media, foreign reports such as exposes on Chinese leaders can reach domestic readers quickly, he told The Straits Times.
"As the Chinese leadership cannot obviously control foreign media through its domestic control regime, centred in the propaganda department, the answer is to intimidate the boldest into dialling back coverage. This way, the most damaging potential revelations can be cut off at the source."
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