Xinjiang reporters detained; Beijing commentator missing

New York, July 13, 2009–Chinese police should halt the detentions of journalists reporting on ethnic violence in Xinjiang and reveal the whereabouts of a Uighur academic and Internet commentator who is missing and reportedly detained in Beijing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The Beijing-based academic and blogger Ilham Tohti, a Uighur, has been missing since July 8 when he told a friend he had received a notice of detention, according to international news reports. On July 6, Beijing public security officials questioned Tohti, founder of the Uighurbiz Web site, about recent postings on his site, a Chinese-language information portal and forum about Uighur issues, according to international news reports.

Police in Xinjiang detained reporter Heidi Siu, a reporter for Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese language service, for two days before deporting her to Hong Kong on Sunday, according to Dan Southerland, a RFA senior editor. Siu, a Canadian citizen whose Chinese name is Siu Chun Yee, was detained on July 10 while she was taking pictures of police moving to arrest Uighurs, according to Southerland. The journalist’s arrest was reported after she was allowed to return briefly to the press center in Urumqi under police escort, Southerland told CPJ by e-mail.

In separate incidents on July 10, police in Kashgar detained AP photographer Elizabeth Dalziel and two Agence France-Presse reporters who were not identified. Police expelled them, citing the risk of violence spreading from the capital, Urumqi, according to AFP and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. In a July 11 statement, the club said at least four foreign journalists had been detained for hours in Urumqi.

“We are concerned that Ilham Tohti has been detained for articles published on his Web site and ask that Beijing security officials clarify his whereabouts and legal status,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Police should also stop detaining and expelling foreign journalists covering the unstable situation in Xinjiang.”

Violent rioting between groups of Han Chinese and the Muslim Uighur minority broke out in Urumqi on July 5, possibly in response to reports of violence between the two ethnic groups in a Guangzhou factory, according to international news reports. Authorities in Xinjiang were unusually welcoming toward Chinese and foreign journalists covering the unrest, announcing at least 184 mostly Han fatalities. Yet the apparent openness was accompanied by a broad shutdown of Internet and mobile phone connections.

Xiao Qiang, director of the University of California Berkeley’s China Internet Project told the BBC the riots provoked “probably the most severe online policing I’ve ever seen” in an interview posted on Berkeley’s China Digital Times Web site. Although authorities have begun to restore Internet access to the city, several Web sites and online discussion forums remain closed or censored, news reports say.

Xinjiang Gov. Nur Bekri had accused Ilham Tohti of using the Web site to collaborate with exile Uighur groups to orchestrate the violence, according to The Associated Press. Tohti had previously criticized Bekri by name on his Web site, saying the governor did not care about Uighurs, according to international news reports. Tohti is an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, the reports said. Some Uighurs had accused Uighurbiz of having links to extremist separatist groups overseas in June, but the Web site had been cleared in an official investigation, according to Radio Free Asia.