In China, mainstream media as well as dissidents under increasing pressure

By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator on December 17, 2014 12:01 AM ET

Protesters carry a placard of jailed journalist Gao Yu at a demonstration in Hong Kong in July. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

In 2014, a record number of journalists imprisoned in China was documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The 44 in prison this year is an increase from 32 in 2013, and is the largest figure for China since CPJ began tracking imprisoned journalists in 1990. In recent years, the generally rising numbers for China have been driven by the detention of journalists from ethnic minorities, mostly Tibetans and Uighurs. Many straddle the increasingly blurry line between journalism and activism.

But in 2014 there was a surge from 16 to 22 in the number of more mainstream, non-minority journalists who found themselves behind bars. Many worked for traditional print media, small publishing houses, or mainstream foreign media organizations including Die Zeit and overseas websites. Three of those on this year's imprisoned list are from Hong Kong. A breakdown of the numbers for 2014 and 2013 is at the end of this piece.

A number of cases seem to reflect the increasingly repressive media and general political atmosphere that has evolved since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013. Xi's approach to the role of media might be best represented by Document 9, an ostensibly secret white paper with an official publication date of April 22, 2014, that was titled "Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, A Notice from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China's General Office." It directs party officials to "thoroughly implement its suggestions" and advises that to "combat seven political perils" party members should reject "universal values" and the "West's view of media."

Secret or not, soon after the document's publication it was widely spread online to foreign and local media by a variety of sources. The reporter and columnist Gao Yu was jailed on accusations of leaking the document and forced to make a confession, which she later retracted. Televised forced confessions are part of the new tactics for dealing with "troublesome" journalists such as Gao.

Under Xi, it has been made clear that the role of the media is to support the party's unilateral rule, and nothing less. It is pretty much a return to the authoritarian approach under Mao that saw the media as being the party's mouthpiece, not the watchdog role that emerged under Deng Xiaoping during the economic liberalization of the 1980s. Document 9 calls for ever more vigilance from China's technological and human censors who keep watch over the country's vast Internet-based culture and traditional media. "Unwavering adherence to the principle of the party's control of media" is one of Document 9's most salient and chilling points.

Media restrictions in China follow cycles of easing and tightening. A few years ago, under President Hu Jintao, many Chinese journalists felt they were in a "golden age" as one put it to me, of relative freedom. Yes, a censorship mechanism was in place, handing down daily, sometimes hourly, directives to editors on how to handle sensitive stories. But enterprising reporters often used social media and blogs to run the longer versions of stories their editors had dialed back in fear of running afoul of censors. Too many violations and the media house and its senior staff would attract unwanted attention, but the punishment was seldom jail. Many reporters were willing to take the risk of telling the story the way they wanted it told. Even state-run television would rush to cover disasters such as train wrecks and earthquakes well ahead of the censors' directives.

Even now media outlets, especially widely read regional and metropolitan newspapers, are under the same sort of competitive pressure to attract readers and advertisers that free-market media face in many parts of the world. Driven by the information pouring out of social media sites, many traditional media find themselves in the same struggle for relevance that foreign outlets face. The guidelines in Document 9 often conflict with that commercial pressure and the expectations of grass-roots voices. When coupled with deep-seated ethnic unrest in the western provinces and a decades-old tradition of willfully independent intellectuals confronting the government through any media available, the stage seems set for more repression and jailings.

Here is the breakdown of the numbers of jailed journalists for this year, with comparisons to 2013. Of the 44 in jail for their work in China, 17 were Uighurs, largely from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Last year's number of seven imprisoned Uighurs was swelled in part this year with the sentencing of six of the seven students who worked with prominent Uighur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti, the founder and editor of the Uighurbiz website. A seventh student sentenced for his association with the website was a member of the Yi ethnic group.

The number of jailed Tibetan journalists is four this year, down from nine in 2013. One of the Tibetan prisoners released this year was filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, a CPJ 2012 International Press Freedom Awardee who was freed in July.

That leaves 22 Chinese journalists, not part of an ethnic minority, who are behind bars in China in 2014. In 2013, that subset numbered 16. New additions this year include Shen Yongping, a documentary filmmaker who tried to crowd source production costs; Zhang Miao, who covered Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations for German magazine Die Zeit; Guo Zhongxiao and Wang Jianman, two Hong Kong editors of political magazines linked to former President Jiang Zemin; Xu Xiao, the poetry and arts editor at Caixin magazine, and Gao, jailed over claims that she sent copies of Document 9 to overseas websites.

One final caveat: CPJ works with family members, employers, colleagues of jailed journalists, and other media and human rights groups to track the number of journalists in jail in China. We strive for accuracy, but very often learn only later of other people who have been detained, and even tried and sentenced. Over the years, a few have become lost in the prison system. And with the definition of just who is a journalist becoming more blurred every day, we make every effort to make a realistic assessment of their role before including them on our list. As with our list of journalists killed for their work, very often CPJ's numbers for those imprisoned tend to be lower than other groups' lists. But we feel our data is a fair reflection of the number of jailed journalists in China.


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