Reporters attacked while covering political dispute in Chinese village

New York, October 11, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a series of violent attacks on journalists trying to cover the ongoing tensions between local authorities and residents in the village of Taishi in the southern Guangdong province.

On Friday, two journalists, South China Morning Post reporter Leu Siew Ying and Radio France Internationale reporter Abel Segretin were struck and threatened by unidentified men and then detained by police as they tried to enter the village. They had intended to investigate why residents had abandoned their attempts to recall an elected village committee chief whom they had accused of corruption.

“A few men in red armbands marked ‘security’ forced us off our motorbikes,” wrote Leu. “Straight away, another 20 people closed in on us—some wearing army camouflage—and asked for our identity papers.”

A well-dressed man said the mob was composed of “villagers,” Leu wrote. He said that if the reporters did not show their identification, he would leave and would not control the others, according to her account. The man called the police while others grabbed Segretin and punched him in the waist, Leu wrote. Another man hit Leu across the head so that she fell to the ground.

Segretin reported that police then arrived and took the two journalists into custody. Police refused to record their complaints, and local propaganda department employees were brought in to give the two reporters the official version of events, saying that the villagers had spontaneously abandoned their recall efforts, according to Segretin’s report.

Later that day, an activist accompanying a reporter for the London daily The Guardian was dragged from a taxi and badly beaten by a mob. Hubei province delegate Lu Banglie, who had been advising Taishi villagers, passed out from injuries received when he was assaulted by a group of men who spotted him in the taxi with Guardian reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt. After he was attacked, he was driven by local officials back to Hubei, according to an interview in Radio Free Asia (RFA). Doctors later diagnosed him with head and internal injuries, and Lu said that he has had trouble eating, according to RFA. Initial reports erroneously stated that Lu had died from his injuries.

After witnessing the beating, Joffe-Walt was interrogated by local propaganda officials.

Villagers have accused local authorities of launching a campaign of intimidation to pressure them into dropping the recall campaign, according to international news reports. Dozens of residents and activists have been arrested since protests calling for a recall election began in July. The events have been watched closely as a test case of China’s grassroots democracy experiments.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan responded to questions about the harassment of Leu and Segretin by accusing the journalists of disobeying rules on foreign reporting. Those rules reportedly include obtaining prior government approval for coverage.

“We express regret over these journalists repeatedly breaching relevant rules to carry out such reporting activities, especially when some media are always criticizing China for the lack of laws,” said Kong, according to Agence France-Presse. “But where there are laws, they lead the way in not abiding by them.”

It was the second time that Leu, who has written several investigative reports from Taishi, was harassed and detained by police. In September, when Leu was covering the villagers’ hunger strike, the windows of her taxi were smashed and she was physically lifted into a van and interrogated by local police, she told CPJ. Leu said that she believed her foreign citizenship saved her from further harm. Leu is Malaysian.

“The recurrence of these attacks indicates the central government’s complicity in allowing criminals to determine the public’s access to information,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We call on authorities to ensure the safety and free movement of local and foreign journalists who are covering the events in Taishi.”

Authorities also shut down the online bulletin board system Yannan after it provided extensive coverage and debate of events in Taishi.