New York, September 15, 2016 - Chinese authorities should launch a credible, independent investigation into allegations police assaulted journalists and allow reporters to do their work, including covering protests, without restriction, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police in China's southern Guangdong province last night assaulted and detained five journalists from Hong Kong-based news outlets, their employers reported, and prevented many others from approaching a village that has recently been the site of protests.
Approximately 20 police officers in the village of Wukan - where, according to press reports, police have used rubber bullets, teargas to disperse protests against government land seizures -- last night burst into a house where two journalists from Hong Kong's Chinese-language newspaper Mingpao and a journalist from the English-language Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) were interviewing villagers. Police pushed the SCMP reporter to the ground, punched one Mingpao reporter in the stomach, slapped another in the face twice, and accused all of them of stealing, according to the SCMP and Mingpao. Police also detained the villagers in the house at the time, Mingpao reported. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Police took the journalists to a local police station where two reporters from the Hong Kong online news website HK01 were also being held. The HK01 journalists had been detained earlier yesterday, on their way to the village, according to HK01. The SCMP, Mingpao, and HK01 reports did not name the reporters.
Authorities accused the five reporters of "illegal interviewing" and breaching a police cordon. The Mingpao and HK01 reporters were forced to sign a letter promising that they "would not come to Lufeng [where Wukan is located] to conduct illegal reporting again," according to Mingpao. By morning, police had released all the journalists and returned them to Hong Kong, HK01 reported. Chinese authorities have threatened journalists not to engage in "illegal interviewing" before, especially in regions where protests had recently occurred or were planned. Human rights lawyer Teng Biao told CPJ that no such crime exists in China's Penal Code.
A representative from Mingpao told CPJ that the Mingpao journalists were resting and did not wish to be interviewed.
Police also harassed a team from the BBC attempting to cover the protests and eventually forced them to leave the province entirely, BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell told CPJ.
"We could not even try [to cover the protests] because we were followed everywhere by at least 10 plainclothes police," McDonell told CPJ. McDonell said the police did not allow the BBC crew to stay in a nearby town, instead escorting them out of Guangdong province.
CPJ's phone calls to the Lufeng Public Security Bureau went unanswered.
The harassment of the BBC team came against the backdrop of news reports saying the Chinese government offered 20,000 yuan (U.S. $2998) to villagers who could turn in foreign journalists "hiding" in the village. The state-owned Global Times on Thursday published an opinion piece accusing foreign media of false reporting and of "unscrupulously inciting, planning, and directing chaos."
Chinese authorities have sought to keep news of the protest entirely out of the domestic media and internet, according to press reports. Police in Shenzhen, a city adjacent to Guangdong province, on Thursday detained Huang Meijuan and gave her a 10-day administrative sentence in a detention center for "spreading rumors" after she shared an article from the U.S.-government-funded Voice of America about the protests on her WeChat account, according to Huang's husband, who shared the detention notice on his Twitter account.
"Detaining, threatening, and harassing journalists - these are the actions of a government desperate to censor any news of protests of significant public interest," CPJ Program Director Carlos Lauría said. "Chinese authorities must ensure the right of journalists to do their jobs, including by reporting on protests, without restriction or fear of violence."