CPJ skeptical of official line on Chinese reporter’s beating

New York, December 22, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the vicious beating of reporter Sun Hongjie and doubts official reports that the attack occurred because of an online dispute with a social media acquaintance. Sun, a reporter for the Northern Xinjiang Morning Post (known locally at the Beijiang Morning Post) was attacked by a group of six people after he had gone to meet a source at a construction site in the small city of Kuitin on Saturday night, according to international news reports. He was discovered at the site on Sunday morning. The state news agency, Xinhua, has reported that he is brain-dead.

Officials’ explanations of Sun’s beating were widely run in Chinese media, such as the Global Times and the People’s Daily. According to the official version of the story as reported in the Peoples’ Daily, “Six people have been detained on suspicion of attacking a journalist, police in Kuitun, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, announced on Monday afternoon. The police said it was an ordinary criminal case and refuted previous speculation that the victim was attacked because his reports had angered some people.” The state-sanctioned explanation is that “Sun was attacked after he fell foul of a cyber friend, who then asked five others to ‘give him a lesson.’ ” The attackers were students, aged 18 to 19, according to official reports.

The official version, however, has been met with skepticism within much of China’s online community (a Chinese-language Twitter summary is indicative of the response). According to the Global Times‘ report on Sun, he often wrote stories critical of the government, including a recent one that “suggested that a township government in Kuitun forcibly knocked down a dairy company building to make way for homes for government officials.”

“There are too many reasons to doubt the official version of Sun Hongjie’s horrific beating to allow it to be dismissed as a mere dispute between friends,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The investigation into the attack on Sun must be taken out of the hands of local authorities and carried out at least at the provincial level, if not by the central government in Beijing.” 

CPJ counts 34 journalists in jail in China, but in an October special report, “In China a debate on press rights,” CPJ noted a “broad but incremental” move toward an assertion of reporters’ press rights, with the central government at times seeming to encourage media rights in limited spheres such as business coverage and local issues. Most journalists and their editors in China self-censor to avoid conflict with editorial guidelines that steadily emanate from the Central Propaganda Department, CPJ found, but the country’s media are growing more aggressive, largely driven by consumers’ expectations and a somewhat freer online atmosphere, though many areas remain taboo.