EU officials admitted their embarrassment after Brussels journalists vigorously protested over a cancelled press conference during last week's EU-China summit. The event was reportedly scrapped at the last minute because independent Chinese journalists risked upsetting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
A series of press events held in the context of the EU-China summit last week (5-6 October) ended in chaos.
By 14:00 on Wednesday, journalists had been kept away from the political leaders' session featuring Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
The previous day, the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB), which was hosting a related EU-China business forum, had emailed journalists to inform them that they would not be allowed access to the meeting.
Instead, journalists were invited to stay in a separate room where they could watch the debate on a big screen. Asked by EurActiv if there would be a facility for journalists to ask questions, the FEB press office said this would not be possible.
Press accreditation for the EU-China business forum was strictly limited and journalists' participation was screened by the organisers, officially on a "first come, first served basis," but also according to nationality and seniority.
Receiving confirmation took more than a week and journalists were required to submit their passport information rather than their press badges, which are usually enough for such events.
A low point was reached on Wednesday afternoon, when China cancelled a press conference at the last-minute after a summit with the European Union.
Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association in Brussels (IPA), said China had scrapped the event because some independent Chinese journalists were allowed into the EU Council building, where the summit was taking place.
Addressing a regular press briefing by the European Commission on Friday (8 October), Consoli insisted that the journalists in question had the necessary accreditation. The Council rightly let the Chinese journalists in, but then the Beijing authorities decided that the conference should not take place, he said.
"API is going to protest against this. We think the Council did the right thing by allowing Chinese journalists with regular accreditation to get in, and not to let China dictate access to press conferences," he said.
"At the same time, we regret that the Council president and the Commission president decided not to hold the press conference anyway. We can guess they were embarrassed because of the refusal of the Chinese to participate, but we think they should have held the press conference anyway," Consoli said.
Lixin Yang, one of the four independent Chinese journalists to have raised such concern among the Chinese authorities, told EurActiv that he had been following EU Council meetings for several years, including events with Chinese leaders. However, he said he had never had such an experience before.
Lixin, who works for Germany-based Internet media Epochtimes.com and has Belgian citizenship, said that as a journalist, he was only doing his job, asking normal questions and never making political statements. His colleagues represented in no way a threat to the Chinese leaders, he insisted.
EU officials claimed the event had been cancelled because the summit had dragged on longer than initially planned.
In the meantime, as imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize on Friday, the international press highlighted the fact that in his message of congratulations, Commission President Barroso stopped short of asking the Chinese authorities to release him, as US President Barack Obama had done.
The news that the prestigious prize had been awarded to Liu was censored by the Chinese authorities. Beijing stated that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo "desecrated" the prize and "could harm China-Norway ties".
Barroso's message reads: "I would like to convey my congratulations to Liu Xiaobo for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2010.
"The Nobel Peace Prize Committee's decision is a strong message of support to all those around the world who, sometimes with great personal sacrifice, are struggling for freedom and human rights.
"These values are at the core of the European Union and the decision of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee highlighted their importance all over the world."
The congratulatory message of European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek was more strong-worded.
"Advocating for change and for human rights by peaceful means, as set out by Charter '08, must not be punished by a prison sentence. I call on the Chinese authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally," Buzek stated.