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Chinese still face long march to establish freedom of information

Chinese still face long march to establish freedom of information

Published on Tuesday 26 June 2012.
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Reporters Without Borders is deeply concerned about the continued attacks by the Chinese authorities on those such as artists, human rights activists and the media who bring public attention to sensitive subjects.

“Rights campaigner Hu Jia beaten up on 20 June, artist Ai Weiwei facing improper legal proceedings, journalists of the South China Morning Post forced into self-censorship… the record is shocking,” the press freedom organization said.

“The list of infringements of freedom of news and information in China appears endless. Bearing this in mind, the government’s human rights action plan for 2012-2015, published by Beijing on 11 June, appears to be little more than window-dressing.

“The state newspaper Global Times says the plan will serve as a foundation for new measures to protect citizens’ rights and penalize illegal detentions. The treatment of Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia, however, arouses scepticism. The authorities have yet to match their words with deeds. We therefore ask the Chinese government to provide concrete proof of its desire to improve its compliance with basic freedoms, in particular the freedom to report and receive the news.”

Hu Jia beaten up, Xu Zhiyong arrested

A year after he was released from prison, human rights campaigner Hu Jia was beaten by state security men as he left his Beijing apartment on 20 June. Hu, who suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, was hit in the throat and reported slight injuries to his chest, which caused him some pain. “It is the first time it happened since I left prison,” he told the French news agency AFP.

He said the reason for the attack might have been a recent visit he paid to the family of dissident Chen Guangcheng, or the fact that it was the hearing date in the trial of his friend Ai Weiwei.

On 12 June, Hu was detained and questioned (Chinese / 中文) by the police for eight hours. When he returned home, about 20 police officers were parked outside his house, watching the front door.

Lawyer and human rights activist Xu Zhiyong was detained by the police for two days – 7 and 8 June – after he published an article on his blog on 29 May entitled "China’s New Civil Movement", calling for greater democracy in the country. The article, written under the pen name “Citizen”, was removed by the authorities.

In an account published online after he was released, Xu says: “Over the last ten years or so, so many Chinese have died in all sorts of black jails as a result of torture; what I was going through was nothing.”

Ai Weiwei harassed

For the first time since his conditional release a year ago, the artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei was able to leave his home on 21 June without having to report to the police. However, on the very day on which his surveillance was due to end, the authorities imposed a new travel ban because of other charges pending against him, including pornography, bigamy and the illicit exchange of foreign currency.

The pornography charge was prompted by a nude group portrait of the artist with four women which the authorities have classified as pornographic because of its wide distribution on the Internet, where it is reported to have been viewed more than one thousand times.

Meanwhile, his prosecution for tax evasion is still progressing. On 20 June, police prevented Ai from going to court to attend a hearing. Uniformed and plain-clothes officers guarded his residence and studio in Beijing as well as the court entrance, also preventing journalists and friends of the accused from entering.

Among the latter, Hu Jia decided not to go to the hearing given that Ai himself had been prevented from attending. Even Ai’s counsel Liu Xiaoyuan was not able to be present. The lawyer, out of contact from the evening of 19 June until the next day, said on his Twitter account that the authorities had forced him to leave Beijing sooner than he expected.

Reporters Without Borders noted the extent to which art can be a means of circumventing censorship in China when it took part in a special event entitled “Art against censorship in China” on 17 April organized by the Liu Xiaobo Support Committee at the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris.

Hong Kong media within reach of Beijing’s long arm

The central government may well have had a hand in an editorial decision by the Hong Kong English-language paper, the South China Morning Post, which published a story on 7 June on the death of the dissident Li Wangyang in suspicious circumstances. The article was reduced to a brief item and moved to a less important section of the paper.

The Web-based newspaper Asia Sentinel quoted an exchange of e-mails between Alex Price, a sub-editor at the South China Morning Post, and the editor in chief Wang Xiangwei. The latter sent a curt reply to a question from Price about how the article was handled: “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”

Although the newspaper later covered the case extensively, it could be an indication that the hand of Beijing was behind this act of self-censorship. The editor in chief responded to the controversy in an editorial on 21 June in which he said he had no desire to downplay the story of Li’s death.

Reporters Without Borders is concerned that the decision may have been influenced by the Chinese government, which would be a blow to the independence of Hong Kong’s media.

In addition, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (国家广播电影电视总局), issued a notice (Chinese / 中文) to provincial radio and television authorities on 13 June announcing a three-month campaign to “combat news extortion and clean up paid-for news”.

The campaign is coordinated by the Central Propaganda Department and the notice refers to the need to “create a favourable climate for the successful opening of the Party’s 18th National Congress”, due to take place this autumn. Reporters Without Borders fears the campaign may have a negative effect on investigative journalism, even though this is not its stated aim.

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