China Has More Than 100 Journalists Behind Bars Amid 'Total Control' of Media

2020-12-16
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China Has More Than 100 Journalists Behind Bars Amid 'Total Control' of Media Blogger Zhang Zhan, detained after repaorting on the Wuhan coronavirus, is shown in a screen shot from video.
Screen shot from video


China was among the world's biggest jailers of journalists in 2020, continuing a pattern of total state control over the media begun under ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) "core" leader Xi Jinping.

"China, which arrested several journalists for their coverage of the pandemic, was the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in an annual report, which found that authoritarian governments had stepped up arrests of journalists for covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Amid the pandemic, governments delayed trials, restricted visitors, and disregarded the increased health risk in prison; at least two journalists died after contracting the disease in custody," the group said in a report published on Dec. 15.

And in Paris, Reporters Without Border (RSF) said Beijing "has failed to learn coronavirus lessons and further tighten[ed] censorship" during 2020.

"China languishes near the bottom of the [Global Press Freedom] Index and does not appear willing to learn the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, whose spread was facilitated by censorship and pressure on whistle-blowers," the group said.

"Worse still, Beijing has used the crisis to further tighten its control of the media, banning the publication of any reports that question how it has been managed," RSF said.

It said total control over the media was made much easier owing to CCP control of media organizations, regardless of whether they are privately owned or run by the state.

"President Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing a social model based on the control of news and information and the surveillance of citizens," RSF said.

It said more than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently behind bars in China.

"Some [are] held in life-threatening conditions," it said, adding that at least three journalists and three political commentators had been arrested in connection with the pandemic.

"The crackdown on foreign correspondents has been tightened with 16 being expelled since the start of the year," it said.

Many currently held

Freelance videojournalist Zhang Zhan, who is being held in Shanghai's Pudong district after she reported on the coronavirus pandemic from the central city of Wuhan, was among those listed on the CPJ database of targeted journalists.

Zhang's defense attorney was informed on Wednesday that her trial for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used by the CCP to target peaceful critics of the government, will be held on Dec. 28, according to a copy of the notification letter posted to Twitter.

Also listed were Cai Wei, Chen Mei, and Tang Hongbo, detained on the same charge after they built an online database of crowd-sourced pandemic-related information called Terminus 2049.

Terminus 2049 collected and archived news items censored by Chinese authorities on social media platforms and mainstream media outlets, according to Terminus 2049 Watch, a website run by Chen’s brother Chen Kun, CPJ said.

The site had republished censored articles on alleged sexual harassment in Chinese universities, the suicide of a student who was bullied by his professor, and Chinese authorities’ campaign to evict migrant workers from Beijing, it said.

Ever-widening control

Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) chairman Chris Yeung said the pandemic was really a pretext for ever-widening CCP control of all forms of public speech and information.

"On the surface it seems to be related to the pandemic, because the authorities will be particularly nervous [about that]," Yeung said.

But he said Beijing's strategy of "comprehensive control over information" was already established before the first COVID-19 cases emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

He said more journalists may have been targeted in 2020, amid the "minefield" of information controls brought in to prevent social unrest or chaos during the city-wide lockdowns and restrictions brought by the pandemic, however.

Yeung said he also expects to see a crackdown on journalism in Hong Kong, which once boasted a free and vibrant news media and publishing industry, amid a crackdown on dissent under a national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.

"There is a far greater level of risk now that the national security law has taken effect, because the provisions are broad, and vaguely worded," Yeung told RFA, citing recent charges against pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai for "colluding with foreign powers," based on social media posts and meetings with overseas officials.

Yeung said the recent detention of Bloomberg journalist Haze Fan in Beijing on suspicion of "endangering state security" was also cause for concern, and could possibly herald further arrests of journalists.

The CPJ called for Fan's immediate release.

"Allegations by Chinese authorities that Haze Fan engaged in criminal activities that endanger China’s national security have no credibility," the group's Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement on Dec. 11.

"Fan should be freed at once and China should stop harassing foreign news bureaus operating in the country," Butler said.

Reported by Lin Peiyu for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chan Chun-ho for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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