Among the nine journalists and commentators arrested by the Chinese authorities since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, six of them remain detained to this day: documentary filmmaker Chen Jiaping, journalists Fang Bin, Zhang Zhan and Chen Qiushi, and press freedom defenders Cai Wei and Chen Mei.
“Helping the public access information on this unprecedented health crisis is not a crime,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia desk, who urges Beijing “to immediately stop the repression against critical voices and free all the journalists and commentators who are still in detention.”
Chen Jiaping, 50, was arrested on 5 March in Beijing for making a film about a political commentator critical of President Xi Jinping’s response to Covid-19 and is being held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), an official euphemism for incommunicado detention at one of China’s “black sites” where detainees are deprived from their rights and face the risk of being tortured.
Cai Wei and Chen Mei, both 27, were arrested on 19 April and are being held in RSDL for reposting censored Covid-19 news articles and interviews on the open-source platform GitHub.
Zhang Zhan, 37, a former lawyer turned journalist, was arrested in Wuhan on 15 May and remains detained in Shanghai after she commented on Twitter on the authorities’ countermeasures to contain the virus.
Chen Qiushi, 34, and Fang Bin, 57, lawyer and businessman respectively, were arrested early February in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, for reporting on hospital oversaturation. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The authorities have also punished nearly 900 internet users for sharing information on the virus, the latest of whom is a 55-year-old woman who was detained for seven days for sharing information described by the authorities as “false rumors”.
From the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, Chinese authorities have gone to work silencing media and social media as well as launching a global disinformation campaign to deflect criticism that media censorship allowed the virus to spread without public knowledge weeks before the government took action.
China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2020 RSF World Press Freedom Index and is the biggest prison in the world for journalists, with at least 113 detained or missing according to the most recent count made by RSF.