China’s long-distance tactic to suppress Uighur coverage

When we conduct the research for our annual list of jailed journalists, we rely on a range of sources. And we come across a lot of information that doesn’t always make it on to our list. With China once again the largest jailer of journalists–44 this year–our research team spotted several stories that deserve notice, even if they don’t fall precisely under the “jailed journalist” heading.

One such case was that of Washington D.C.-based Uighur journalist Shohret Hoshur, who works for the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia (RFA). Hoshur left China in 1994 after two articles that he wrote for a local newspaper were deemed to be “separatist” by the propaganda department, RFA told the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to RFA, the harassment of Hoshur’s family started in September 2009 after the broadcast of his report on the death of a Uighur torture victim, but the threats from officials accelerated last year.

In 2014, one of his brothers was sentenced in China to five years in prison for violating state security laws, and two other brothers were detained for allegedly leaking state secrets after discussing the sentencing in a phone call with Hoshur, according to RFA. The station said no formal charges have been brought and no trial date has been set for them.

The following information was sent to us by Jennifer Chou, RFA’s deputy director of programming. It arrived after our deadline for the 2014 imprisoned list and, technically, the men aren’t locked up because of their journalism, but because of their brother’s. The roundup started early in 2014, according to the family. Here is Chou’s message:

We have a pressing issue regarding the safety and well-being of several family members of Radio Free Asia Uighur reporter Shohret Hoshur, a U.S. citizen who, we believe, has been targeted by Chinese authorities for his breaking news coverage of events in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Hoshur believes his three brothers have been wrongly arrested and charged as a means to intimidate and even silence him as a journalist reporting on sensitive issues in China.

Two of Hoshur’s brothers are being held for supposedly leaking state secrets after discussing the arrest and sentencing of his third brother in a telephone call with Hoshur. The family says Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region authorities have engaged in a pattern of intimidation and threats against them since 2009. Throughout this period authorities, police, and investigators seem to have used Hoshur’s coverage of sensitive issues as a journalist with Radio Free Asia as a justification for their harassment. Hoshur has even received phone calls from his family members asking him to leave his job at RFA, which he believes were made under pressure by authorities.

Worried that the situation could get worse, RFA has not named the brothers and is publicizing the situation with great care, as is Hoshur. In a carefully worded emailed statement, he told CPJ he wants to use international pressure on China to set his brothers free. “All three of my brothers are hard-working, upstanding members of their community, with little if any interest in politics or social issues. As farmers and merchants, they have been dedicated to supporting and providing for their families,” he said in his message.

And he dismisses the validity of the charges brought against them. “The conversation between me and my two brothers about our third brother’s trial was a private conversation about a serious matter that deeply concerns my family. I find it very difficult to believe that this conversation could be used as the basis of the charges brought against my brothers for ‘leaking state secrets’ and ‘endangering state security.’ These seem only like thin excuses to justify the continued harassment of me as a journalist reporting on events in China’s Uighur region,” he said.

In a blog analyzing this year’s prison list, I noted that while many journalists from ethnic minorities are being jailed in China, we are starting to see more non-minority journalists being arrested as President Xi Jinping’s government cracks down on dissidence from even the mainstream media.

But that minority/non-minority distinction should not be the sole focus. What we are seeing, and have been seeing for many years now, is the use of state security laws like those used to lock up Hoshur’s brothers as the default accusation the state relies on to silence dissident voices.

For now, Hoshur continues to report for RFA–the broadcaster considers him its go-to reporter for the region. “RFA takes threats to its reporters very seriously, and is strongly aware that authorities in its broadcast countries sometimes target the families and friends of their journalists as a means to restrict independent journalism,” Chou said in her message. “Hoshur is asking for publicity of this case with the hope that international attention could help ease the pressure on his family.”