Chinese journalist targeted in hacking attack

New York, July 26, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a hacking attack on a Chinese journalist’s e-mail account reported by her employer on Saturday. The attack originated from a region of China where the journalist was investigating child trafficking. 

The Beijing-based Caixin Media group said in a statement posted to its website on Saturday that its Caixin magazine reporter Zhao Hejuan’s Gmail account had been hijacked by an unknown person or group. A Gmail security alert notified Zhao on July 21 that someone had been accessing the personal account she used for work purposes, according to the statement. Caixin said the unauthorized access had begun on July 19 and was traced through the IP address to the county of Longhui in Hunan province. Zhao had been in Longhui investigating the alleged abduction of children born outside family-planning restrictions for adoption overseas, which Caixin said in May was a for-profit scheme run by local government officials. An official investigator said those claims were false, but the magazine has not retracted its story, according to The New York Times. Caixin has carried out several investigations into child abuse and trafficking in various parts of China. 

CPJ has reported in the past on several cases of hackers targeting foreign journalists reporting during sensitive political periods–including the Olympics and ethnic unrest–which puts sources and colleagues, as well as privileged information, at risk. But local journalists have either avoided such attacks or not reported them.

“This attack on Zhao Hejuan’s email account, which appears to be connected to her reporting, is deeply disturbing,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “We support Caixin Media in their call for Beijing police to investigate immediately.”

Google, which has not commented on this case, publicized attempted security breaches of individuals using its e-mail service in January 2010 and June this year. Four foreign journalists reported interference with their Gmail accounts during a crackdown on the attempted Jasmine Revolution in March. It is not clear who is behind the attacks, although the identities of their targets, journalists or human rights activists perceived as critical of China, indicate that their interests are aligned with the Chinese government. Chinese authorities have repeatedly failed to investigate such attacks.  

Investigative reporters have been under increased pressure recently in China. The China Economic Times disbanded its investigative unit, led by veteran journalist Wang Keqin, last week, which prompted an outcry on social media sites, according to CPJ research. Caixin Media’s statement is another sign of publicly voiced support for the profession:

Caixin Media has and always will safeguard its reporters’ legal rights and personal security, and protect them from any form of illegal interference which may render them unable to continue with their normal work activities.

CPJ described how journalists speak out against press freedom violations even in a repressive media environment in the 2010 special report “In China, a debate on press rights.