HONG KONG--Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) detained a number of foreign journalists covering the recent ethnic violence in Urumqi, including a reporter for RFA's Cantonese service.
Freelance journalist Heidi Siu Chun-yee traveled to Urumqi July 7 following rioting which left 186 people dead, according to official figures.
Local Uyghurs told Siu on July 10 that some shops near the Grand Bazaar had been ordered to close, and she went there to take photographs from a distance, she said.
"Suddenly, many police vehicles arrived, and more than a hundred armed police and plainclothes police wearing black T-shirts and slacks went into several buildings nearby," Siu said.
"The atmosphere was very tense and anxious. A while later, I saw the police arrest and handcuff dozens of Uyghurs and put them in the police vehicles."
Stopped by police
Siu said she began taking photos of the detentions from some distance away before being stopped by a plainclothes police officer, who took the memory card from her camera. She was then brought to a nearby police station and questioned.
After being turned her over to personnel of the Municipal Foreign Affairs office, who detained her briefly at the international press center set up for foreign media in Urumqi, Siu was returned to the police station and held there overnight.
She was then held for a second night under police guard at a hotel and denied permission to contact family, friends, or co-workers. Her cell phone, laptop, and camera were confiscated and returned on the morning of her release Sunday, but minus the memory card, Siu said.
She said she saw at least two other foreign journalists at the police station, although they were released the same day. Siu herself was released only after signing a "self-criticism" statement.
While China has welcomed foreign journalists who arrive in Urumqi to cover the unrest, it has also been highly selective about what it wants them to cover, journalists and press associations said.
The Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said it received reports last week that security forces in Xinjiang had "detained TV crews and other reporters," confiscated or damaged equipment, and interfered with interviews since the unrest began, although reporters have also said they were protected by police from angry mobs.
Official media have highlighted reports underlining the government line that the violence was instigated from overseas, and that it does not represent ethnic tensions and anti-Beijing feeling which have simmered in the region for decades, according to Uyghurs.
They have also given prominence to reports that life in Xinjiang is returning to normal after armed police imposed curfews on major cities, and that the Islamic College in Urumqi offered shelter to residents of the city fleeing mob violence, regardless of ethnicity.
Authorities in Xinjiang cut off access to the Internet in some parts of the region following the violence, which Beijing has blamed on exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer and overseas separatist groups who oppose Chinese rule in Xinjiang.
Web sites popular with Uyghurs--including www.salkin.com and www.diyarim.com and the portal www.ulinix.com--were made unavailable as soon as the July 5 demonstration began. Browsers displayed "connection interrupted" messages when attempts to access the sites were made.
As of July 13, the sites remained blocked.
The blocked sites typically carry message boards, news, and advertisements for services to the Uyghur communities in China. But Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri, in a July 6 televised address, accused the sites of also spreading "false rumors" and "incitement propaganda."
Attempts to reach Urumqi by telephone during the same period resulted in busy signals.
The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) said journalists were at risk last week from Han Chinese vigilantes who continue to roam the streets amid a high security presence.
The group condemned the filtering of online information about the rioting in Urumqi, citing more than 50 Uyghur-language Internet forums that were closed, with communications also cut in the regional capital.
"Once again, the Chinese government has chosen to cut communications in order to prevent the free flow of information," RSF said in a statement. "We firmly condemn this behavior, which is a serious violation of Uyghur freedom of expression and an unacceptable act of discrimination."
The microblogging website Twitter was blocked sporadically, but some journalists still managed to send updates from the scene of the rioting.
Washington-based Kadeer, a former businesswoman jailed for "subversion" and sent overseas on medical parole, said she condemned any violence.
But she noted that the rioting in Urumqi was sparked after a peaceful protest demanding an investigation into the deaths of Uyghur migrant workers at a toy factory in southern China was suppressed violently by police.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, religious controls, and continued poverty despite China's ambitious plans to develop the vast hinterland to the northwest.
Xinjiang is a vast and strategically crucial desert territory that borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The region has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region.
An editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper called on Monday for all sides in the conflict to "hold high the banner of ethnic unity."
"In order to maintain and consolidate ethnic unity, it is necessary to protect the equal rights of the people of all ethnic groups," the paper said.
Original reporting by RFA's Cantonese, Uyghur, and Mandarin services. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han, News Director, English