efe-epaBeijing

Expanding surveillance and government interference in reporting along with harassment of sources led to a deterioration in 2018 of the work environment of foreign journalists in China, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said on Tuesday.

The association published a new report titled "Under Watch: Reporting in China's Surveillance State" about the experiences of foreign journalists in China last year in which the "results painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions inside China in recent memory," it said.

In the survey that was carried out in December by the FCCC, 55 percent of journalists said that reporting conditions worsened in 2018 - the highest figure since 2011 - and not a single journalist believed that the conditions have improved in the last year.

Surveillance is also one of the major concerns as 48 percent of the respondents reported being followed or their hotel room being entered without permission while in the field.

Moreover, 91 percent were worried about the security of their phones and 22 percent said that they were aware of being tracked by the authorities "using public surveillance systems."

"The wider monitoring and pressure on sources stop journalists even before they can reach the news site," said FCCC president Hanna Sahlberg.

Upon being asked to comment on the report, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that these are "groundless accusations" and added that the report does not represent the views of the foreign correspondents in China.

Speaking at a press conference, Geng said that foreign correspondents can contact the ministry at any time if they face any problems or difficulties in the country.

"This interaction would be better than issuing such kind of report full of attacks," said Geng.

In Xinjiang region, where nearly 1 million Muslims are detained in "re-education" camps, 24 out of 27 journalists said they had experienced "interference", with 19 of them forced to delete data.

Six journalists had visa renewal difficulties while BuzzFeed News bureau chief Megha Rajagopalan's visa was not extended and Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Matthew Carney received one for just two-and-a-half months, forcing him to leave the country. Both had worked in Xinjiang.

"There is a risk that even foreign media will shy away from stories that are perceived as too troublesome, or costly, to tell in China. These trends run contrary to the FCCC's hopes for real openness for foreign media to be able to cover China," said Sahlberg.

The survey added that pressure on Chinese national news assistants and sources intensified in 2018. Of respondents, 37 percent said their Chinese colleagues were pressured, harassed or intimidated, while 34 percent said sources had been harassed, detained or called in for questioning.

"The restrictions now facing foreign correspondents call for a serious look at the commitments China's government has as the 2022 Winter Olympic host. We want to see an even playing field," added Sahlberg.