There has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese journalists in jail in the past year, fueled by a series of convictions of ethnic minority writers, according to a New York-based media watchdog.
A total of 34 journalists remained in Chinese prisons on Dec. 1, compared with 24 in the previous year, putting China in joint first place with Iran for having the highest number of jailed reporters, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in an annual report.
"The increase was propelled by a series of imprisonments of Uyghur and Tibetan journalists that began in the latter half of 2009 and continued into 2010, the details of which have emerged only recently in accounts of their court proceedings," the group said in a statement on its website.
The journalists were handed jail terms after addressing ethnic tensions amid violent regional unrest in recent years, "topics that are officially off-limits," it said.
It cited the cases of a Tibetan writer known as Buddha, who questioned economic disparities between Tibet and the rest of China, and Uyghur website editor Gheyrat Niyaz, who commented on ethnic violence in the far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in July 2009.
The report, titled "Attacks on the Press 2010," said that Beijing was continuing to crack down on ethnic minority press and jailing Uyghur and Tibetan journalists in the wake of ethnic unrest.
It added that the official Chinese media had either ignored or denounced the Oct. 8 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to human rights defender and writer Liu Xiaobo, under close direction from the ruling Communist Party's central propaganda department.
"The case highlighted significant, ongoing official censorship," the group said.
The group said, however, that mainstream journalists were speaking out more often to protest attacks, harassment, and arrests.
"Interviews with more than a dozen journalists, lawyers, and analysts, along with a review of several recent cases, pointed to a journalism community asserting the principle of press rights," the CPJ report said.
"Press protests led to arrests in assaults on journalists, the release of an unjustly jailed reporter, and apologies from newsmakers who sought to intimidate media outlets," it said.
But it added that both news coverage and the expression of press rights still face severe constraints.
"[China's] propaganda department continue[s] to bar direct challenges to central authority or the Communist Party, along with independent coverage of sensitive national topics," the report said.
"The same restrictions that prohibited journalists from covering sensitive topics such as ethnic unrest effectively kept reporters and editors from speaking out on related anti-press abuses," it said.
“The increase in the number of journalists jailed around the world is a shocking development,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
“It is fueled largely by a small handful of countries that systematically jail journalists—countries that are at war with information itself.”
The Internet continues to play a key role in media freedom and censorship, the CPJ said.
More than half of the journalists currently imprisoned in China had conducted their work online, either as independent writers or as editors of Internet news sites, the group said.
According to a CPJ blog post published alongside the report, journalists working in China are increasingly the targets of cyber attacks.
The e-mail accounts of several China-based foreign correspondents, including New York Times correspondent Andrew Jacobs, have been subjected to increased hacker attacks, it said.
"Jacobs' experience as a journalist in China is not unusual. Over the past two years, other members of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) have been the victims of a series of targeted computer hacks," wrote Danny O'Brien, CPJ's San Francisco-based Internet advocacy coordinator.
When it spoke out about the attacks, the FCCC's own website was taken offline by a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) assault, O'Brien said.
The DDOS assault is a form of censorship by information overload in which hundreds of thousands of computers—known as a "botnet"—are coordinated to send or demand data from a single website, crashing either the Internet connection or the server on which it is hosted.
The botnet is set up by malware or malicious software that secretly infects the personal computers of ordinary people, which are then remotely controlled by the hacker.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.