China appears to be tightening restrictions on international media again, barring foreign journalists from working near a popular Shanghai park and along a major Beijing shopping street after calls for protests in those spots appeared online.
The new restrictions put the popular leisure spots on a par with Tibet as out-of-bounds areas where foreign reporters need special permission to work and come after journalists were attacked and harassed while working in the same areas over the weekend.
Bob Dietz, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the treatment of journalists in Beijing on Sunday was "the worst aggression against the foreign press we've seen since the Olympics in 2008."
"Such a heavy-handed response discredits the ruling Chinese Communist Party and highlights their fear of popular opposition," Dietz said in a statement.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said journalists from 15 news organizations trying to report near the shopping street "experienced serious interference." Journalists from five news organizations reported having their equipment confiscated or reporting material destroyed, the FCCC said in a statement Monday.
Bloomberg News said one of its journalists was assaulted by five men who appeared to be plainclothes security officers and had a video camera confiscated. A BBC journalist wrote that he and a colleague were roughed up while being thrown into a van by men in plain clothes.
U.S. and European diplomats have criticized Chinese authorities for the harassment.
The violence and tighter restrictions follow anonymous online calls for peaceful protests every Sunday in dozens of Chinese cities, inspired by the demonstrations that have swept the Middle East.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu on Tuesday said some foreign reporters in Beijing encountered problems because they had not obtained permission to report in the shopping area. She urged journalists to report assaults to the police and to observe China's rules and regulations while doing their jobs.
Foreign journalists have traditionally been afforded greater freedom to report in China than local reporters, who face strong censorship and can be fired for reports considered overly critical of officials or government policies.
But foreign reporters who tried to take photos or shoot video on Beijing's Wangfujing shopping street on Sunday were told they needed special permission to work there. An Associated Press photographer was told Tuesday that the area near People's Square in Shanghai was also off limits.
Security in the capital is always very tight in early March, when the country holds its annual two-week legislative session, and dissidents are routinely put under house arrest or taken in for questioning around this time. The session begins Saturday.
The latest reporting rules conveyed this week, however, appeared to be a step backward from the more relaxed rules put in place in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics allowing reporters to work freely anywhere in China. Prior to the Olympics, foreign journalists officially needed government permission to travel for work.
During a testy and unusually drawn out Foreign Ministry news conference at which reporters demanded an explanation for the restrictions, Jiang insisted that regulations had not changed.
She also seemed imply that reporters who went to the leisure spots in Shanghai and Beijing were part of an anti-China plot.
"That place is a busy street, the flow of people is large and not a single thing was happening. Who did so many reporters receive a notice from?" Jiang asked.
She would not say if similar restrictions would be placed on other public spaces in the future.
Despite promises to loosen regulations, before and during the Olympics, foreign journalists were blocked from covering potential protests, and were forcibly taken away from some areas.
An AP cameraman who had been granted local police permission to film Wangfujing on Tuesday was still barred from approaching the spot in front of McDonald's where protesters had been told to gather over the weekend. A police officer said it was off limits for filming because of street repairs and construction, though none was visible.
It wasn't clear how many people, if any, tried to protest in Beijing on Sunday. Security was tight with hundreds of plainclothes and uniformed police patrolling the area. Street-cleaning trucks drove repeatedly up Wangfujing, spraying water to keep crowds pressed to the edges.
Also Sunday, police near Shanghai's People's Square blew shrill whistles nonstop to keep people moving.
Online posts of unknown origin that first circulated on an overseas Chinese news website nearly two weeks ago have called for Chinese to gather peacefully at sites every Sunday in a show of people power meant to promote fairness and democracy. A renewed call Monday expanded the target cities to 35, from 27. China's extensive Internet filtering and monitoring mean that most Chinese are unaware of the appeals.
Associated Press writer Alexa Olesen contributed to this report.