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Weighing China jailed cases amid censorship and fear

A screen shot shows Shen Hao's tearful 'confession' on Chinese state television channel CCTV. The former chairman of 21st Century Media was sentenced to four years in prison for extortion.

My native China is consistently among the world's worst jailers of journalists. This year, it has been eclipsed by Turkey, which is holding a record number of journalists behind bars. But since CPJ began conducting an annual census in 1990, China has topped the ignoble list 18 times.

This year, CPJ identified at least 38 Chinese journalists behind bars, seven fewer than in 2015. This, however, should not be interpreted to mean that press freedom in China has improved in the past year. On the contrary, China has cracked down on human rights news websites, banned original reporting on the internet, prevented journalists from traveling, and tightened its grip on Hong Kong media.

A significant factor in the number of prisoners in China in the past few years is the case of a once-leading business media company, the 21st Century Media Group--a number of whose managers and editors were detained in September 2014 and accused of extortion. CPJ did not include any of the group in the annual census that year, but added nine members of the group to last year's census, based on new details at the time. This year, we chose not include anyone from the group, even though we believe some of the journalists are still in jail, because yet more information created fresh doubts over whether journalistic work is what landed them in prison.

The case is emblematic of the difficulty and complexity of researching cases in China, where the government reveals little information about arrests, legal investigations, and court trials; the press is largely prohibited from carrying out independent reporting; and the citizenry is increasingly reluctant to speak to foreign media or advocacy groups about politically sensitive matters. The challenges are compounded when journalists are accused of corruption.

At the time of their arrest, police in Shanghai accused managers and editors of 21st Century Media of extorting money from companies, particularly ones due to be listed on the stock market, in return for positive coverage in publications including news website 21st Century Net, daily newspaper 21st Century Business Herald, and weekly magazine Money Week. In December 2015, state news agency Xinhua reported that Shen Hao, the former chairman of the group, was sentenced to four years in prison for extortion and "other defendants were given sentences ranging from one and half years to 10 and half years." It remains unclear exactly who was arrested, and who was sentenced for how long and for which crimes. We determined last year that at least nine journalists were among those in jail from the group, but there may have been more.

Last year, we took into account state media's reports about 21st Century Media's extorting activities, but also international media reports and CPJ's interviews with Chinese journalists, all of which suggested that the group was targeted because of critical reporting on the Chinese government. In addition, some of the arrested journalists, including Shen Hao, were paraded on the state broadcaster CCTV, making comments billed as confessions. Publicizing forced confessions is a strategy increasingly used by the Chinese government to justify the prosecution of journalists, lawyers, and activists and to sway public opinion.

After we published the 2015 prison census, Xinhua on December 24, 2015, published two articles revealing more details about the case, including the names of some companies 21st Century Media allegedly extorted, the amount of money involved, and accounts by the alleged victims. Later, CPJ learned independently that the group had been involved in at least one case of extortion: In 2014, 21st Century Business Herald, the flagship newspaper, threatened a Chinese manufacturing company that was about to go public that if the company did not "work with" the newspaper, negative coverage about it would be published. The company obliged, saying 21st Century Business Herald had too big of a following to ignore, two people involved in the company's public listing preparation work told CPJ. They asked that they and the company not be named, saying the information is "confidential."

The evidence that 21st Century Media engaged in activities that would be considered illegal by international standards led to CPJ's decision not to include the journalists on our 2016 census.

Corrupt practices among journalists are widespread in China. Extortion and paid-for news have become "institutionalized," according to experts such as the China Media Project. In the past few years, dozens of journalists have been charged with bribery or extortion-related crimes, but secrecy surrounding the cases makes it difficult to determine whether critical journalists and news outlets, such as those of 21st Century Media, are singled out for prosecution.

During the process of researching the case, I reached out to employees at 21st Century Media, former colleagues of the imprisoned journalists, and veteran Chinese journalists who I thought could provide me with insight into the case. Some spoke, some declined to speak, and more often, I never heard back. One time, I was exchanging casual messages on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, with a Chinese journalism professor, and I asked his opinion on this case. Our conversation ended abruptly.

The acute fear that Big Brother is watching permeates the Chinese media industry. On March 15 this year, well-known columnist Jia Jia was taken away by police on suspicion that he was involved in the publication of a public letter criticizing Chinese President Xi Jingping. When a person posted the news about Jia's disappearance in a group chat on WeChat, the light-hearted conversation among the group of journalists and media workers suddenly stopped, followed by a period of silence. Perhaps the journalists did not feel right blatantly ignoring news about the disappearance of a colleague, but at the same time were too afraid to express outrage. I have noticed this several times--the sudden inaction in group chats when news about the arrest of a journalist, a human rights lawyer, or a democracy activist was put directly in people's face.

I have tried to get in touch with the families of the jailed 21st Century Media journalists to hear their side of the story, to no avail. Families of jailed journalists, though desperately wanting the release of their loved ones, are usually reluctant to talk. Police in China often tell families that speaking to the foreign media or to advocacy groups will exasperate the dire situation of their relative. For this year's census, CPJ obtained important updates about a journalist who has been on our jailed list for several years and who has been ill, but we could not publicize the information, because the family said they feared that doing so could jeopardize the progress they are making on the journalist's behalf.

I also reached out to the Shanghai police and court for information about the 21st Century Media case. Not surprisingly, I did not get useful information. Of the numerous times that I have called police bureaus across the country when journalists have been arrested, police officers either have not answered the phone or have politely told me that they had no information regarding the person about whom I was asking. However, one time when I inquired about the arrests of journalists from Wujie News, a Beijing police officer, sensing that I was a native Chinese speaker, lectured me for five minutes on how I betrayed my "motherland" by working for an anti-China organization in the "imperialist" and "hegemonic" America. I had never had a Chinese police officer speak so many words to me.

During the trials of the 21st Century Media journalists, I regularly logged onto the website of the Shanghai Pudong New Area People's Court, hoping the court would make announcements on the case. There were dates and addresses of the trials, but no information that would help me better understand the case. The Chinese government operates a national database of trial verdicts where anyone can easily search among millions cases across the country, but I could not find the verdicts of the 21st Century Media trials, nor the verdicts of other jailed journalists in our prison census.

I have often marveled at the ability of the Chinese government to facilitate the flow of massive amounts of information that serves the economy, while at the same time successfully suppressing politically sensitive information, and the ability to discipline journalists into almost intuitive self-censorship through a myriad of subtle and unsubtle methods.

When I had difficulty obtaining information about Chinese journalists in troubling situations, I often wished I were in China, where I could meet journalists in person to gain their trust or question Chinese officials face-to-face. Given that starting from January 1, 2017, foreign non-governmental organizations are required to register with the Ministry of Public Security and allow the police to scrutinize all aspects of their operations, and given that CPJ has been denied visas in the past, the prospect of us having a presence in China looks completely unlikely.

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