The detention of at least four contributors to a rights website based in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan in recent weeks is indicative of an ever-widening crackdown on freedom of expression and nongovernmental groups in the country, activists said on Monday.
Last week, authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang detained Yang Dongying, a citizen journalist for the Sichuan-based Tianwang rights website.
Yang was detained on June 24 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," after she publicly denounced local police officers over their interrogation of her 13-year-old son, who has since been hospitalized.
Tianwang, which was founded by prominent rights activist Huang Qi and began as a resource for relatives of those killed or injured in the military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement, gives detailed, online coverage of ordinary Chinese who seek to defend their rights in the face of official abuses of power.
Such stories rarely find expression in China's tightly controlled, state-run media, and are deleted from social media sites soon after they appear.
Earlier this month, state security police had interrogated Yang about her links with other Tianwang journalists including Wang Jing and Zhang Jixin, who are currently also detained, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement on its website.
Wang Jing, who was also detained in April 2014 after reporting on a self-immolation incident on Tiananmen Square, has been in police detention in the northeastern province of Jilin since January, also on public order charges.
Wang's defense lawyer Li Weida said his client has been repeatedly tortured while in detention, causing her existing medical problems to worsen sharply.
"She has described being beaten by the chief inmate in her cell, and ... also being made to wear manacles and leg irons for eight days straight," Li told RFA on Monday.
"This was because she wrote something about the rights of detainees and stuck it to the wall. She was demanding these rights be respected," Li said.
Li said his client hasn't committed any crime. "She is innocent, and she doesn't plead guilty herself, either," he said.
On her charge sheet, Wang is accused of "attacking" actions at the Jilin provincial People's Congress.
But Li said she had only ever peacefully assisted other petitioners with their complaints against the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Tried behind closed doors
Another Tianwang contributor, Wu Youming, was tried behind closed doors at a court in the central province of Hubei on June 4. Wu pleaded not guilty to "extortion and blackmail," and no verdict has yet been handed down.
And a fourth Tianwang volunteer journalist, Lian Huanli, was sentenced to a year's imprisonment after his arrest last March for allegedly using the services of a prostitute, RSF said.
"Ever since the 2013 earthquake in Sichuan province, he had distinguished himself by his defense of the rights of earthquake victims in Lushan district," the group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Jilin authorities also detained Tianwang citizen journalist Zhang Jixin on April 26 on public order charges, it said, calling for the journalists' immediate release.
"Reporters Without Borders condemns [the] arbitrary arrest of Yang Dongying, the latest victim of the Chinese government’s systematic persecution of citizen-journalists working for [Tianwang]," the group said.
"The targeted arrests of [Tianwang] reporters testifies to the sensitivity of the stories covered by this news website," it quoted Asia Pacific affairs chief Benjamin Ismaïl as saying.
Meanwhile, free speech activist Wu Gan, known online by his nickname "The Butcher," has been formally arrested on "embezzlement" charges by police in his hometown in the southeastern province of Fujian.
Wu, who is being held in the Yongtai County No. 3 Detention center, is likely being targeted for his outspoken views expressed via social media, rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told RFA.
"This likely has to do with some of the things he writes on the Internet, both on [Chinese microblog site] Sina Weibo and on Twitter,"
Number may be much higher
According to Tianwang founder Huang Qi, the real number of detained citizen journalists across China may be much higher.
"The number of citizen journalists who are currently detained in mainland China is far, far higher than the authorities have publicized," Huang told RFA.
But he said the approach wouldn't work.
"This sort of crackdown won't solve the problem on the ground, because it will only cause more ordinary people to take a stand against persecution," Huang said.
"They will use news reporting and human rights as a tool to struggle against human rights violations," he said.
Chengdu-based Huang was convicted of “illegally possessing state secrets” by the city's Wuhou District People's Court in 2009 after he called for an investigation into shoddy school construction blamed for the deaths of thousands of children during a massive 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.
Before that, Huang had served five years in jail on "subversion" charges.
Ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, China is the world’s biggest prison for news providers, according to RSF's website.
Veteran political journalist Gao Yu, winner of UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano Prize in 1997, was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Beijing court in April for "revealing state secrets to an overseas organization," a charge she strenuously denies.
Reported by Xin Lin and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.