A leading China-based reporter has left Bloomberg News amid a row that has again turned the spotlight on Beijing’s increasing pressure on foreign news organisations to drop embarrassing stories – especially on the personal wealth of top Chinese leaders and their connections with big business.
Michael Forsythe was suspended by Bloomberg last week, under suspicion of having leaked allegations that the financial news service had decided to scrap an article long under preparation, said to detail ties between the families of Chinese leaders and one of China’s richest men.
“I can confirm I have left Bloomberg News, that’s all I am going to say for now,” Mr Forsythe told his followers on Twitter on Tuesday.
The controversy first went public earlier this month with a report in The New York Times that Matthew Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg, had told Mr Forsythe and other Hong Kong-based employees that if the story ran, he was afraid Bloomberg would be banned from China.
This would mean an end not only to reporting on the country, but also of its financial news terminal business, the company’s major source of revenue, in the world’s second largest economy. Mr Winkler is said to have likened Bloomberg’s position to that of foreign media who self-censored news from Nazi Germany in the 1930s to remain in the country.
“He [Mr Winkler] said, ‘If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,’” a Bloomberg employee told the The New York Times. Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was apparently also declared dead.
Mr Winkler denied the report, insisting the stories were “active” and had not been spiked for political reasons – even though editors dealing with the stories raised no objections to their content.
Then abruptly, the word changed. The stories would not appear for now, according to employees cited by the The New York Times, because they did little to advance a series of Bloomberg reports in 2012.
That series, which dealt with the personal finances of leaders including President Xi Jinping, so angered the Chinese authorities that they blocked Bloomberg’s website, and refused Bloomberg requests for residency permits for new staff.
There have long been tensions between foreign media and China. They were inflamed by the lurid scandal of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party provincial leader once tipped for top office but sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption in September 2013. Bo’s wife got a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
The New York Times had its websites blocked last year after an article on the wealth of Wen Jiabao, the then Prime Minister. This month, Beijing rejected an eight-month-old visa application for Paul Mooney, a China specialist, to return as a correspondent for Reuters news agency.
“Such delays and lack of transparency merely add to the impression that the visa process is being used by the authorities to intimidate journalists and media organisations,” the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a statement.