A citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan travelled to Wuhan in February last year and chronicled the Covid-19 pandemic and the authorities’ handling of it on her smartphone. In May, the Chinese authorities detained her and in December, she was sentenced to four years in jail.
Her charge? “Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for posting videos on YouTube about the pandemic. The United Nations last month joined the many organisations around the world urging the Chinese authorities to release the 38-year-old.
Ms Zhang’s family has said that she might be close to death, with her health deteriorating fast after she staged hunger strikes in jail. Her brother Zhang Ju tweeted that: “She is so stubborn. I think she may not live long. If she doesn’t make it through the cold winter, I hope the world will remember her as she was.”
Ms Zhang is one of “at least 10 press freedom defenders” currently in prison in China, according to a new report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) entitled The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China. RSF adds that if not released immediately, they face “impending death”.
Their cases are part of an alarming deterioration in press freedom in China that has included the expulsion of foreign correspondents and a particularly dramatic decline in Hong Kong’s situation, with the city falling from 18th place in RSF’s Press Freedom Index in 2002 to 80th place in 2021. China as a whole ranks 177th out of 180 — only two spots above North Korea.
The new RSF report finds that there are at least 127 journalists currently detained in China — accounting for one quarter of all the journalists detained across the world.
“We are of course calling on the Chinese regime to release them immediately,” said Cédric Alviani, head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “But, in the longer run, our fear is that if this continues in China, there will not be a single free journalist left in China because the system of information will be so rigged.”
He told The Independent that there is huge pressure on journalists, writers and bloggers to toe the government’s line in everything they write, and said the best example of another country where this happens is North Korea. “China is definitely going in that direction,” he said.
Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of RSF, said China was becoming a “nightmare” for journalists. “The renewal of Chinese journalists’ press credentials is now subject to a test of knowledge of the president’s ‘Thought’ and an examination of their footprint on social networks,” he said. “In its frenzy of control, the regime is even considering banning private media in the near future. It is a nightmare.”
RSF’s report highlights several cases of media workers who have died in detention in China. They include Kunchok Jinpa — a tour guide and a key news source from Tibet. The 51-year-old died in a hospital in Lhasa earlier this year, less than three months after being transferred there from prison without his family’s knowledge.
Sophie Richardson, the director of the China programme at Human Rights Watch, had called Kunchok Jinpa’s death “ yet another grim case of a wrongfully imprisoned Tibetan dying from mistreatment. Chinese authorities responsible for arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment, and the death of people in their custody should be held accountable.”
⚡️Embassy of #China in #Paris : RSF has placed a coffin to denounce the tearing down of #AppleDaily by order of Chinese president Xi Jinping. The newspaper was one of the last major independent Chinese-language media critical of the Beijing regime. pic.twitter.com/lP7iJmTlXZ
— RSF (@RSF_inter) June 25, 2021
Then there are the cases of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, writer and activist Liu Xiaobo and blogger Yang Tongyan — both of whom died in 2017 from untreated cancers while in detention.
The report details how Chinese media outlets and internet companies are obligated to follow the Communist Party’s instructions, especially when it comes to issues that are deemed “sensitive” — like reporting on Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, corruption and social unrest. It says that “the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, which controls the actions of 14 ministries, sends the media a daily list of topics to be highlighted and another list of topics they must not cover under penalty of sanctions.”
Hong Kong features prominently in the report, with the new National Security Law adopted in June last year becoming a tool of repression of independent voices in the name of the fight against “terrorism, secession, sedition and colluding with foreign forces” — four charges that RSF said were frequently used against journalists on the mainland. Among the journalists detained are the business tycoon and founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, alongside several senior editors at the now defunct news outlet.
And foreign correspondents have increasingly found their work frustrated by the Chinese authorities, with a number of seasoned reporters from western outlets denied visas and ejected from the country this and last year. In a statement, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China said that the country used the coronavirus pandemic as yet another way to “significantly frustrate the work of foreign correspondents in China”.
Mr Alviani said: “When China allowed foreign correspondents, it was a time when the country needed foreign investment and international exposure. Now that the times have changed and China doesn’t need any of that, it views foreign correspondents as unwanted witnesses and tries to get rid of them.”
In March this year, the Chinese government introduced a provision of the Chinese criminal law that prohibited any discussion challenging the official narrative of Chinese historical events. Just two months later, former journalist and political commentator Qiu Ziming was sentenced to eight months for “defaming heroes and martyrs” after he questioned the violent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the border in June last year.
“Under the pretext of countering the influence of Western hostile forces, China is exporting its conception of rogue journalism to serve state interests and working to spread its propaganda around the world through increasingly insidious means,” the RSF report says.