China:  Immediately release detained journalists on World Press Freedom Day

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China:  Immediately release detained journalists on World Press Freedom Day

Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, and as a new wave of detentions of media workers has emerged, CHRD calls for the immediate release of journalists and publishers. The Chinese government must end its current campaign to silence and intimidate independent-minded media workers for exercising their right to freedom of press and expression.

From information CHRD has gathered, several influential media personalities in China have joined the long list of detained or imprisoned editors, journalists, online citizen journalists.  China already leads the world in jailing journalists, with PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index database listing 91 detained writers in China out of 311 globally. 

One such case is that of the Li Yanhe, the editor-in-chief of Gūsa Publishing based in Taiwan, who was detained by Chinese authorities while visiting family in Shanghai.  Li’s Taiwan-based publishing house took on many “sensitive” book projects that no publisher in mainland China would touch due to censorship. For instance, Gūsa Publishing was the Chinese language publisher for Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women, and Dexter Roberts’s The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.

Friends and family lost contact with Li Yanhe in March, and on April 26, Chinese authorities confirmed that Li Yanhe was “under investigation by national security organs on suspicion of engaging in activities endangering national security,” according to Zhu Fenglian, spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office.  “The relevant parties will protect (Li’s) legitimate rights and interests in accordance with the law,” she said. 

However, this reassurance of having his “legitimate rights” respected is hardly reassuring. Li Yanhe’s case is reminiscent of the Hong Kong bookseller case in 2015, when five booksellers based in Hong Kong were disappeared by Chinese authorities, including Gui Minhai being abducted in Thailand. While the authorities tried to claim that their rights were protected, bookseller Lam Wing Kee went public and revealed that he was subjected to incommunicado detention, ill-treatment, forced to sign documents giving up the right to legal defense, and forced to make scripted confessions to the media.

Dong Yuyu, an experienced Chinese journalist who took part in the prestigious Nieman Fellow program at Harvard University, is being tried on espionage charges

Dong who is well known among foreign journalists and diplomats, was taken away on February 21, 2022, as he was having lunch with a Japanese diplomat. His family went public with the case after exhausting quiet efforts to get him released. There is a petition calling for his release signed by prominent journalists like Bob Woodward, Nicholas Kristof, and many former Nieman Fellows.

Shangguan Yunkai (上官云开), a journalist who was the former Hubei station chief for the Legal Daily, was criminally detained by the EZhou police in Hubei on April 21 charge of “selling fake medicine” and is being held at the EZhou City Number One Detention Center.  

Lawyers were not allowed to meet Shangguan Yunkai on April 24. His son filed a complaint with the procuratorate, which has jurisdiction to oversee police misconduct. After this his son told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that police threatened him by saying he had a bright future and that anything he put on the internet could have legal consequences.

Shangguan Yunkai specialized in corruption investigations, and his reporting has brought down many officials. His son told RFA that the medicine his dad sells is a topical medicine from Taiwan and readily available for purchase on many internet platforms in China.

CHRD believes all of these individuals have been targeted for their exercise of the right to freedom of expression, and as such, they should be immediately and unconditionally released. In the meantime, they should be allowed lawyers of their choice, in line with international and domestic law. 

Meanwhile, new information in April 2023 emerged in the case of Fang Bin, a citizen journalist who video recorded deaths from COVID in Wuhan in January of 2020 and put them on YouTube and was subsequently disappeared by the authorities. For years, the international community did not know what had happened to Fang Bin.

According to a report seen by Rights Defense Network, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the top Chinese Communist Party organ that oversees and coordinates work of the police, prosecution, and courts, issued a “research opinion” (研究意见) on how to handle Fang Bin’s case. Fang Bin was subsequently secretly tried and sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

This startling revelation of explicit political manipulation in the judiciary reflects how China’s political leaders can easily direct the outcome of any “sensitive” legal case. The secretive handling of Fang Bin’s case also appears to be part of a broader effort to rewrite the narrative about China’s handling of COVID in the early stages of the pandemic, an effort that includes the forced retraction of studies and articles in Chinese journals and the deletion of data, as reported by the New York Times

These detentions occur as China has taken new regulatory moves to limit freedom of expression:

On April 26, 2023, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress promulgated its revision of the Counter-espionage Law. The new revisions expand the scope of the previous law. Perhaps most notably, the new revision now includes language that defines “acts of espionage” as “to steal, pry into, purchase or illegally provide…documents, data, materials, or items related to national security or interests” in addition to the previous “state secrets [and] intelligence” (Article 4(3)). With the concept of “national security” being extremely broad in Chinese law, the new revision arguably could make the sharing of routine data and materials with the international community a behavior viewed as “espionage”.

Dozens of western academics institutions were informed that starting from April 1 they would lose access to databases provided by China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) because the company, Tongfang Knowledge Network Technology, said it had to ensure “cross-border services are in compliance with the law.” These databases provided the means through which scholars abroad could access papers published in Chinese academic journals. 

On March 2, the Secretariat of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published a notice addressed to each province, special administrative region, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps,  titled “A notice regarding the initiation of a special ‘cleaning’ campaign to strictly regulate chaotic phenomenon in ‘self-media’.”  The campaign’s goal is to more strictly monitor the management of ensuring real name registration, content moderation and censorship, banning fake news and information, preventing news outlets from reporting on other areas not in their jurisdiction, preventing “attacks” on the Chinese Communist Party and government, and similar “misreading” of major policies, macroeconomic issues, natural disasters, popular social issues…etc. 

As Rights Defense Network noted, in the days after the publishing of the notice, the notice was displayed on the CAC’s public WeChat channel and the link was sent to various social media groups, with the effect of creating an atmosphere of self-censorship on discussing current affairs. 

“While China’s censorship apparatus has always been extensive, recent geopolitical tensions with the West seem to have made the Chinese authorities more paranoid than ever in going after any perceived national security threat,” said William Nee, CHRD’s Research and Advocacy Coordinator. 

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