Shohret Hoshur, Washington-based reporter for Radio Free Asia. According to a RFA statement, the harassment of Hoshur’s family started in 2009 after he reported on a Uighur torture victim, but threats from officials had accelerated in recent months. (Smith Augustin Jr. /Radio Free Asia/Courtesy of Smith Augustin Jr. /Radio Free Asia)

The Chinese government has imprisoned the three brothers of a Washington-based reporter for Radio Free Asia, apparently intensifying its suppression of free speech and coverage of the troubled province of Xinjiang.

Ethnic Uighur journalist Shohret Hoshur left China in 1994, after he ran into trouble with the authorities for his reporting. He has since become a U.S. citizen and a mainstay of Radio Free Asia’s coverage of Xinjiang, offering one of the only independent sources of information about events in the province.

According to a statement from RFA supplied to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the harassment of Hoshur’s family started in 2009 after he reported on a Uighur torture victim, but threats from officials had accelerated in recent months.

Last year, one of his brothers was sentenced to five years in prison for violating state security laws, while the two other brothers have been detained for allegedly leaking state secrets after discussing the trial in a phone call with Hoshur. RFA said the men were targeted because of Hoshur’s “breaking news coverage” of events in Xinjiang, where the brothers live.

“All three of my brothers are hard-working, upstanding members of their community, with little if any interest in politics or social issues,” the reporter said in the statement. “As farmers and merchants, they have been dedicated to supporting and providing for their families.”

Hoshur said the harassment had become so intense that he had even received phone calls from family members asking him to leave his job at RFA, an organization set up by Congress in 1994 to broadcast news that would otherwise not be reported in Asian countries where governments do not allow a free press. RFA continues to be funded by an annual grant from the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Hoshur dismissed the charges against his brothers.

“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,” he said. “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.”

In Washington, the State Department said it is “deeply concerned” by the news about Hoshur’s brothers. In a news briefing Thursday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in response to a question, “We urge Chinese authorities to cease harassment of his family and to treat them fairly and with dignity. We continually urge China to respect internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression.

Human rights groups say China brutally represses rights, culture and freedom of worship for the region’s Uighur Muslims. Xinjiang has been home to long-running separatist unrest, and violence has dramatically increased in the past year or two.

China’s government says the separatists are motivated by Islamist extremism, but it has made independent reporting from Xinjiang almost impossible by harassing foreign journalists who visit the province and threatening or arresting Uighurs who talk to reporters.

In July, for example, Hoshur reported that Chinese police had fatally shot scores of knife- and ax-wielding Uighurs who went on a rampage in Shache county in Xinjiang, apparently angry about restrictions on the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and an earlier “cold-blooded killing” of a family of five.

That contradicted the official version of events, which blamed the deaths on a terrorist attack. Foreign reporters were subsequently barred from entering the area.

RFA said Hoshur would continue to report on events in Xinjiang.

“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,” Jennifer Chou, RFA’s deputy director of programming, told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Hoshur is asking for publicity of this case with the hope that international attention could help ease the pressure on his family.”

The committee says China imprisons more journalists than any other country, with 44 behind bars last year, compared with 32 the previous year.

In September, China sentenced moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment for “advocating separatism” and voicing support for terrorism, a move that the White House condemned as persecution of someone who merely expressed peaceful dissent.