Chinese activists are escorted as they disembark from a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. (Reuters/Kyodo)
Chinese activists are escorted as they disembark from a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Japan releases Chinese journalists–China’s up next

It’s not often we at CPJ find ourselves calling on other countries to release Chinese journalists from detention. But that’s just what happened yesterday. Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV contacted us to say that two of their journalists were among a group of 14 arrested by Japanese authorities over a disputed territory in the East China Sea. For once, we found ourselves in accordance with Chinese authorities, who called for the “unconditional and immediate release” of all 14, according to Reuters

Japan has since deported the journalists, along with the protesters they were covering as they planted a Chinese flag on one of a string of islets–known in China as Diaoyu and Japan as Senkaku, local and international news reports say. We’re waiting to hear from Phoenix whether their footage was intact, but it’s good to hear they are safe. As CPJ’s Deputy Director Robert Mahoney pointed out yesterday: “Reporting on a protest is not a crime. It’s what journalists the world over do every day.”  

Except in China. There, protests are common, but coverage of them is heavily controlled, leaving news to filter out online. And while that method of spreading the word can be remarkably effective, it does not alter the fact that Communist Party leaders still vigilantly stamp out anti-government sentiment. Sure, researchers report Internet censors cracking down more on efforts to organize than on straightforward criticism. But as long as China’s lawmakers are the ones drawing the distinction between observing and participating, CPJ believes that anyone conducting journalism in China–be it in the mainstream press or otherwise–remains at risk of reprisal.

That’s based on the 27 journalists, largely freelancers communicating online, who CPJ documented behind bars in China on December 1, 2011. Many had an activist bent. Take Liu Xiaobo, arrested just as his petition for political reform, Charter 08, was issued, but sentenced for inciting subversion on the basis of online articles. Or Tan Zuoren, detained ahead of the publication of his research on behalf of families of school children killed as shoddily-constructed public buildings collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake–but sentenced for inciting subversion for an article he’d written the year before, a first-person account of the crackdown on 1989’s anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square.  Do you see a pattern yet? Expressing dissent may seem like the new norm in China. But it leaves a dangerous paper trail.

Phoenix TV was lucky that the protest they were publicizing was aligned with Beijing’s goals. Though not state-funded, the Hong Kong broadcaster has a significant advertising base in mainland China. We describe them as pro-Beijing, though Haipei Shue, the Phoenix commentator in Washington D.C. who alerted us to the story, prefers a more neutral description: “A publicly listed company in Hong Kong that broadcasts primarily into the mainland China.” However you phrase it, it’s pretty clear that Beijing was on side. Japan, too, responded, immediately and unconditionally deporting the group where they might have raised delays and objections.

China, it’s your turn. Immediately and unconditionally release the journalists you’ve arrested for reporting on, expressing, or amplifying discontent. You know, now at first hand, that it’s the right choice.