China: still world’s biggest prison for journalists and citizen-journalists

Twenty-eight years after the ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, China’s prisons currently hold more than 100 journalists, citizen-journalists and bloggers, including a Nobel peace laureate and three winners of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)-TV5 Monde Press Freedom Prize.

Although the famous video of the Tank Man, an icon of the “Chinese Spring,” is now 28 years old, it has yet to be broadcast on Chinese TV. Nearly three decades after a crackdown that almost certainly left more than 1,000 dead, the Chinese regime continues to keep a tight lid on free speech and the freedom to inform.

Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and RSF-TV5 Monde laureates Huang Qi, Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu are among those currently in prison in China, which is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, surpassed only by Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea in authoritarianism.

Nobel laureate behind bars

A writer and human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo was one of the leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations, during which he went on hunger strike. He is now the world’s only Nobel peace laureate to be in prison. To the international community’s apparent indifference, he has been serving an 11-year jail term since 2009 for voicing a desire for democracy in an online manifesto called “Charter 08.”

Liu previously spent more than 18 months in detention and another three years doing forced labour. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since October 2010 and is constantly harassed by the authorities although she has not been convicted by any court.

“The constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly states that its citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press, that every citizen has the right to criticize Party officials and to expose their misdeeds, and that no one has the right to suppress this kind of information,” said Cédric Alviani, the director of RSF’s newly opened East Asia bureau in Taipei. “Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of all imprisoned journalists, citizen-journalists and bloggers, and calls on the international community to maintain the pressure on Beijing.”

Website founders behind bars

Huang Qi created 64tianwang, the first Chinese website to document human right violations in China. The figure 64 refers to the 4 June, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Huang, who was awarded RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in the “Cyber-Dissident” category in 2004, has been in prison since last autumn. He was previously detained from 2000 to 2005 and from 2009 to 2012 because of what he published about the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Huang was arrested by the police in October 2016, at the same time as Liu Feiyue, the founder of the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website.

A few weeks before their arrests, police abducted five women citizen-journalists working for 64tianwang during the G20 summit. And in April of last year, Wang Jing, a woman freelance journalist who did reporting for 64tianwang, was sentenced to four years and ten months in prison on a charge of “picking quarrels and causing trouble.”

Denied treatment abroad

Gao Yu, 73, a well-known journalist who was Deutsche Welle’s correspondent, is still under house arrest. Awarded the Plume d'Or de la Liberté in 1995 and UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 1997, she was arrested in April 2014 for sending supposedly confidential documents to a foreign media outlet. She reappeared two weeks later on state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) in the process of “confessing her crimes” to a police officer, a practice that harks back to Mao Zedong’s China.

At her trial in November 2014, at which she received at five-year jail term, Gao revealed that the police had threatened reprisals against her son if she did not confess. Because of serious health problems, she has been allowed to serve her sentence at home but not to seek medical attention abroad. The authorities continue to subject her and her family to constant harassment.

Bloggers increasingly targeted

China has seen a marked decline in respect for freedoms since Xi Jinping took over as president in late 2012, with the result that Xi has been added to RSF’s lists of “press freedom predators” and "enemies of the Internet" Professional journalists are now formally required to “guide public opinion” following the “official party line.” This has increased the importance of online citizen-journalists and bloggers, and the resulting level of harassment to which they are subjected.

Hu Jia, a blogger who was jailed from 2007 to 2011 and was awarded the Sakharov Prize in 2008, has been one of the victims of the increased persecution. Although subject to constant police surveillance, he was badly beaten by unidentified men as he returned home on 16 July 2014.

He said at the time he thought the attack was prompted by an online campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. His health, already badly affected by his years in prison, is now much worse because he suffering from liver cirrhosis and is currently in a critical condition in Beijing hospital.

Gagging “citizen-journalism”

In another example of the increased persecution, citizen-journalists Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu were abducted by the police in June 2016 while documenting worker protests. The latest case is that of Wu Bin, a blogger known for his comments on Twitter who was finally arrested in the southern city of Shenzhen after years of harassment by the authorities.

Things are unlikely to improve any time soon. A new regulation that took effect on 1 June threatens the very existence of citizen-journalism by imposing prior registration as a requirement for anyone posting content online. The new rule, which could in theory apply to any online comment or video, is designed to intimidate China’s online citizen-journalists and will probably persuade them to censor themselves even more.

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Updated on 02.06.2017