China tops the world in jailing journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the number of detainees spiked in 2014, and is the longest it's been since CPJ started tracking numbers in 1990.

Kin Cheung/AP
In this June 9, 2012 file photo, Chinese journalist Gao Yu attends an opening ceremony of Chinese artist Liu Xia's photo exhibition in Hong Kong. Gao went on trial last month in closed-door proceedings in Beijing on accusations of leaking state secrets.

China topped another global list of superlatives Wednesday: Its government has jailed more journalists than any other in the world.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says in its annual report that 44 reporters languish in Chinese prisons. Second-placed Iran has locked up 30 journalists, according to the report.

The list of imprisoned Chinese journalists is longer than it has ever been since CPJ began keeping records in 1990. That reflects “the increasingly repressive media and general political atmosphere that has evolved” since President Xi Jinping took power two years ago, writes Bob Dietz, coordinator of the CPJ’s Asia program, in a commentary published alongside the report.

The number of detainees jumped from 32 last year, partly because Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur teacher and blogger, was jailed last month along with six of his Uighur students who worked on the “Uighurbiz” blog.

Nearly half the journalists held in Chinese jails are Tibetan or belong to the Uighur ethnic minority – a predominantly Muslim people from the far Western province of Xinjiang, where the authorities have responded harshly to a rising tide of separatist and religiously inspired violence.

But there has also been an increase this year “in the number of more mainstream, non-minority journalists who found themselves behind bars,” Mr. Dietz says.

They include 80-year-old Huang Zerong, who writes under the pen name of Tie Lu. He was arrested in September, not long after he had written an article criticizing the government’s propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan that was published on the Internet and in Chinese overseas media. He was later charged with “creating a disturbance” and is in custody awaiting trial.

Human rights activists have noted a tightening of restrictions on all forms of political expression over the past two years. “We have noticed a lot of people who get involved in political affairs being detained and sometimes formally arrested,” especially if they are active online, says William Nee, a researcher in Hong Kong with Amnesty International.

He points to the fate of citizens rights activist Liu Ping, sentenced in June to six-and-a-half years in jail after she posted a photo online showing herself with a group of colleagues holding a banner demanding that officials should declare their wealth.

“It is part of a broader crackdown on independent Chinese voices” that challenge the ruling Communist party’s orthodoxy, Mr. Nee adds.

As the party has strengthened its grip on Chinese society, the media are a prime battleground for official ideologists.

Last year, a leaked secret party document titled “No. 9” that outlined the ideological dangers said to be facing China, stressed the importance of ensuring “unwavering adherence to the principle of the party’s control of the media.”

One of the new victims on the CPJ’s list is Gao Yu, a veteran journalist who has been charged with sending state secrets abroad. The secret she is said to have revealed is “Document No. 9.” Ms. Gao, who is being held at Beijing's No. 1 Detention Center, pleaded not guilty at a closed trial that began last month, and is awaiting a verdict.

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