A Paris-based press freedom group has called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to release five citizen journalists detained during the G20 summit, which saw world leaders converge on the eastern city of Hangzhou amid draconian security controls.
The five journalists were there to cover the event for the Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang when they were taken away by police and held at an unknown location, Reporters Sans Frontieres
(RSF) said in a statement on its website.
Yang Xiuqiong, a Tianwang contributor who covered the arrest of petitioners on the Z9 train to Hangzhou on the evening of Sept. 2, has lost contact with family and friends after speaking to RFA about the detentions, it said.
Fellow journalists Lin Xiurong, who reported that Hangzhou’s stadium had been turned into a detention centre for petitioners, and Yuan Ying, who reported on a demonstration by some 2,000 petitioners outside the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing, are also missing and believed detained.
Tianwang writers Jiang Chenfen, who wrote about restrictions on her freedom of movement, and He Yazhen were also incommunicado, the group said.
"The authorities carried out several waves of arrests of dissidents and human rights activists as the G20 leaders were meeting in Hangzhou," RSF said.
"They also abducted citizen journalists who were providing direct or indirect coverage of the summit."
"We demand that the authorities release these five citizen journalists, who did nothing more than cover situations they observed at first hand, and we demand that they refrain from bringing any charges against them," RSF's Asia-Pacific head Benjamin Ismaïl said.
"Whenever an international event is held in China—whether the Olympic Games, the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen or the G20 summit—the authorities violate the rights of thousands of people and arrest dozens of citizen journalists, bloggers, and online information activists," he said.
"Beijing must stop organizing these systemic information blackouts."
Risk of violence
Tianwang founder and veteran rights activist Huang Qi told RSF he feared for his detained reporters, as they are less likely than other detainees to sign "confessions," thus putting them at more risk of violence.
"Citizen journalists play a crucial role in mainland China, because they report on the hardships suffered by ordinary people, and on the reality of social problems, to the public," Huang said in a later interview with RFA.
"So, naturally, they are targeted by the authorities for serious persecution."
Huang said there are currently around 10 former Tianwang contributors behind bars, including Wang Jing, who reported on the self-immolation of a woman on Beijing's Tiananmen Square on March 5, 2014, the opening day of China's annual parliament.
"We hope to hear more support both in and outside China, to prevent the government's suppression of freedom of information through the persecution of citizen journalists," Huang said.
He said that officials in Sichuan, faced with fiery protests and potential threats to their physical well-being, had opted for lower-profile ways of dealing with rights campaigners.
"Mostly now, they take them somewhere on an enforced vacation," Huang said.
Huang's colleague at Tianwang, activist Pu Fei, said that the G20 summi, as an international event, shouldn't be treated by the host nation as a state secret.
"It's inappropriate for them to be using it as an excuse to detain people," Pu told RFA on Thursday.
He said the government had failed to produce any evidence to prove that the five Tianwang reporters had done anything illegal.
"They just detained them because they said what they were doing was inappropriate, so of course we at Tianwang want to see them released as soon as possible," Pu said.
Wang Jing was jailed in April for four years and 10 months after the Chuanying District People's Court in the northeastern province of Jilin found her guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
Wang was accused of filing reports to the Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang and of posting photos on Tencent Weibo and overseas websites after she witnessed a self-immolation protest on Beijing's Tiananmen Square on March 5, 2014.
Wang was also accused of giving phone interviews to a number of overseas media, including Boxun and Radio France International, which were picked up by "more than 70" news organizations, the prosecution said.
She later went on hunger strike to protest ill-treatment in detention.
Ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index, China is one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers, with more than 100 detained, RSF said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.