Whistleblowing doctor missing after criticizing Beijing's coronavirus censorship
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Chinese authorities to urgently clarify the situation of Dr. Ai Fen, a whistleblower who has been unreachable for the past two weeks after giving interviews to the media in which she criticized Beijing’s censorship of information about the coronavirus epidemic.
RSF has taken note of the video published on the Weibo account of the whistleblower Ai Fen, which suggests that she is free to move, and hopes that it was not staged by the Chinese regime. RSF remains concerned for journalists Chen Quishi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua missing after investigating COVID-19.
It was the Australian TV current affairs programme 60 Minutes that first reported on 29 March that Dr. Ai Fen, the head of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, is now missing, apparently as a result of her criticism of censorship in the interview she gave to Ren Wu, a magazine that is part of the People’s Daily group.
The issue containing the interview, published on 10 March, was quickly removed from newsstands. The interview was also deleted from the magazine’s website but was previously copied by Internet users who continued to circulate it.
Ai’s family and colleagues fear she has been arrested as a result of the Ren Wu article. US-government funded Radio Free Asia also confirms that it has been unable to contact her. Her account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo is still active and a few reassuring messages have been posted on it. But their authenticity is questioned because the Chinese police often force detainees to reveal their passwords. Three journalists and three political commentators have also been arrested in connection with the coronavirus epidemic in the past two months.
“In her media interviews, Dr. Ai Fen said China’s censorship delayed the adoption of measures against the coronavirus crisis and therefore contributed to its spread in China,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “We urge the Chinese authorities to display the utmost transparency about her situation and, if she has been arrested, to immediately free her and all other journalists and information sources detained in China.”
It was Ai and a group of fellow doctors who on 30 December first sounded the alarm about the emergence of a virus in Wuhan resembling the one responsible for the SARS epidemic in 2003 that infected around 8,000 people and killed more than 800, mainly in China. Eight of the doctors, including Li Wenliang, who later died of the virus, were arrested on 3 January for allegedly spreading “false rumours.”
China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.