In China, journalist sanctioned while activist disappears

New York, May 23, 2011–The recent sidelining of an outspoken journalist in Guangzhou and the disappearance on Friday of a Beijing lawyer and activist known for his blog writings are the latest signs of China’s deteriorating press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The outspoken Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily has disciplined a journalist following a commemorative May 12 editorial on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The opinion piece made references to detained artist Ai Weiwei, according to Hong Kong University’s China Media Project and the Tokyo-based Asahi newspaper. Ai documented the plight of the earthquake victims in his multimedia works – one can read filmmaker Alison Klayman’s description of Ai’s earthquake-centered work on the CPJ website this month.

The journalist, Song Zhibiao, was not fired, but “side-shuffled” from his post, the Media Project said. Internal transfers or demotions are a common punishment for outspoken journalists: They are sometimes a preface to a journalist’s dismissal, according to CPJ research. “We have confirmed that Song Zhibiao … will be prevented from writing editorials for an unspecified period of time,” the Media Project reported May 18, on their website.

The China Media Project also published a selection of blog writings by lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong, who disappeared in Beijing on Friday, according to a Hong Kong group. Xu’s original blog is no longer accessible. Xu told friends he was being “taken away to the suburbs” after disappearing with unknown people, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported, according to The Associated Press. Police may be rekindling tax evasion charges levied against him in 2009, the Center said. Dozens of writers and activists have disappeared or been detained since February, following online appeals for a Jasmine revolution in China, according to CPJ research.

“The actions taken Song Zhibiao and Xu Zhiyong are continuing evidence that China’s media crackdown extends to both professional journalists working in mainstream media and activists working online,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Individuals across the spectrum of Chinese media are being unfairly punished for expressing their views.”

In a separate case, Xinhua news agency said a company controlled by Ai Weiwei, the most internationally prominent of recent detainees, was delinquent in a “huge amount” of taxes and had destroyed tax documents. The report did not elaborate, but said that Ai has been under “residential surveillance,” or house arrest.

Yet the location of Ai’s confinement is not his house. Ai’s wife Lu Qing was allowed to visit him on May 15, according to The Guardian, but his location–which is not a jail or a detention center–remains unclear. Police have failed to charge Ai with any crime since his detention on April 3, but even without a criminal charge, his residential surveillance can last six months, The Guardian reported.