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China is the world’s 'biggest captor of journalists’ with 127 detained, report says

An activist holds a placard with the picture of Chinese citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan. (Kin Cheung/AP)

China is the world’s “biggest captor of journalists” with at least 127 currently detained, according to a report from the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

The newly published report, titled “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China,” highlights the challenges facing those seeking to report in the country, from detention in unsanitary conditions to the intimidation and ousting of foreign correspondents.

The investigation, the group said on Tuesday, “reveals the unprecedented campaign of repression” led by China in recent years against “the right to information worldwide.” Researchers said Chinese authorities have used the coronavirus pandemic as “an excuse for increased repression” and extended the list of topics on their censorship list — including the #MeToo movement.

In December 2020, Zhang Zhan, a Chinese citizen-journalist and former lawyer, was sentenced to four years in a Shanghai prison for reporting on the early coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. She faced charges, often used against dissidents, of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Her family and activists are pleading for her release and warning that she could be on the brink of death after a series of hunger strikes. The country’s Foreign Ministry has dubbed such statements “anti-China” and maintained that Zhang’s case is being handled according to the law.

Family of jailed Chinese chronicler of Wuhan lockdown pleads for her release

The new report also said a national security law that China imposed last year in Hong Kong had led to increased threats against reporters and defenders of press freedom, placing some at risk of life sentences and pushing media outlets to shut down, including the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which ceased operations in June. Before its closure, offices were raided and editors arrested.

Officials said the editors were detained under the national security law for the broadly worded crime of conspiring to collude with foreign forces, one of several offenses under the law that are punishable by life in prison.

Chinese authorities expelled U.S. journalists from The Washington Post and the New York Times last year as part of retaliation for Trump administration limits on U.S.-based Chinese state media, as the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China accused Beijing of using “journalists as pawns in wider diplomatic disputes.” Beijing also expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over an opinion article that officials deemed racist.

Meanwhile, Haze Fan, a member of the Bloomberg News bureau in Beijing, has been in detention for more than 12 months. Officials said she was held on suspicion of endangering national security.

Last month, China and the United States agreed to ease restrictions on journalists operating in each other’s countries, in one of the first diplomatic breakthroughs between the Biden administration and Beijing.

Around the world, the number of imprisoned journalists hit a new high last year, with at least 274 behind bars as of late 2020 because of their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The group highlighted obstacles facing reporters in countries in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, while noting that, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 110 journalists were arrested or charged last year in the United States, and about 300 were assaulted, the majority by law enforcement.

The Nobel Committee sent a strong message of support to journalism in October by awarding its Peace Prize to editors Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia for their work at a time of rising crackdowns on press freedom.

And in a case with little recent precedent, dissident Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, whose alternative news platform was used in protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, was detained after the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight he was on this year.

Journalism has long been a profession in which individuals have been restricted — or targeted — for holding the powerful to account.

The gruesome killing of Washington Post contributing columnist and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi three years ago, a case that sparked international outrage, underscores the dangers writers continue to face — even in locations they consider to be safe.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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