February 13, 2012
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461
Dear President Obama,
When you meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping tomorrow at the White House, we urge you to raise concerns about media restrictions in China.
Press conditions deteriorated in China in 2011. Authorities cracked down on any hint of domestic dissent as the Arab Spring toppled long-standing leaders in another part of the world. This year is likely to be no better. Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to begin handing over his leadership posts to Vice President Xi, heightening authorities' sensitivity to protests, turmoil, and the unexpected events that make up the news. Transparency and accountability will suffer.
According to CPJ research, at least 27 journalists remained in jail as of late last year, in direct violation of China's international commitments to safeguard free expression and basic human rights. They include Shi Tao, former editorial director of the Changsha-based Dangdai Shang Bao, who has been jailed since 2004 for sending an email detailing censorship restrictions. They also include Dhondup Wangchen, a documentary filmmaker sentenced to a six-year jail term in 2008. He was accused of "inciting separatism" for reporting on the lives of Tibetans in the run-up to the Olympic Games. Journalists who report on protests and unrest among China's ethnic minorities, including Uighurs and Tibetans, remain at particular risk of arrest.
International journalists, including U.S. reporters, have been blocked from travelling to the site of ongoing Tibetan protests. When London- and Washington-based advocacy groups reported in January that police fired on protesters in Sichuan, reporters were blocked from travelling within 60 miles of the site, The New York Times reported.
Domestic journalists face an intensive regime of censorship, and a growing roster of veteran journalists have been removed from their posts for critical reporting. Chinese microblogs--the equivalent of Twitter--provide an imperfect but vibrant forum for ordinary citizens and journalists to post news and information. But lately, Chinese authorities have expanded real-name requirements on these sites, adding yet another measure of control to the Web.
In a press briefing Friday, members of your administration pledged that human rights would be "central" to this week's discussions with Vice President Xi. "Deepening China's political reforms is profoundly in their own interest," said Anthony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, "especially given the close connection between openness, human rights, and China's own goal of creating a truly innovative society."
Any effort to foster openness in China will fail without a free press. As a result of China's efforts to control the media, information vital to the global economy as well as to Chinese citizens is going unreported. Journalists' efforts to expose flaws in food safety, environmental hazards, and unfair or unsafe working conditions have been suppressed. Conflicts between protesters and authorities are proceeding without domestic or international accountability.
In the coming years, Vice President Xi may have the opportunity to determine whether China will continue to suppress information and repress dissent, or shift its policies to reflect the needs of its people and its global standing. As the United States' critically important relationship with China moves forward on so many fronts, it is important to keep media freedoms and journalists' rights on the agenda, even in the face of resistance or denial from its leadership.