Imprisoned Journalists in an Era of “Fake News”

In the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual census of imprisoned journalists around the world, China comes in second place, with 41 reporters or writers behind bars.

In an accompanying post, Iris Hsu writes that several of those in prison suffer from medical ailments for which they may not be receiving proper treatment:

The repeated denial of medical care to journalists and other political prisoners is, in effect, a slow death sentence.

Since 2013, at least seven dissidents and journalists, including Yang and Liu, have died in custody or shortly after being freed, after authorities repeatedly denied them proper medical treatment, according to a November report by Human Rights Watch.

At least eight other jailed journalists who are included in CPJ’s 2017 prison census are in need of proper medical attention:

Huang Qi, founder of the human rights news website 64 Tianwang, has kidney and heart disease, and two tumors on his chest and stomach, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Huang, who is included in CPJ’s Free the Press campaign, has spent more than eight years in prison at various times in the past two decades for reporting on protests, government corruption, and human rights abuses. Since his latest arrest on November 28, 2016, Huang has been denied medical treatment and fellow inmates beat him with the encouragement of prison guards, Huang’s lawyers told CPJ. Authorities in Mianyang City, where the journalist is detained, have rejected medical parole applications filed by Huang’s lawyers. [Source]

Neglect of political prisoners’ health, especially following the deaths of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and activist Cao Shunli, has been an escalating cause of concern for human rights advocates working in China.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has strengthened already stringent control over the domestic media while also expanding its influence over coverage of China abroad, calling on domestic media outlets to “tell China’s story,” ostensibly from a government perspective only. Chinese journalists who report outside the bounds of officially mandated topics, which are often delineated in official propaganda directives, are subject to a range of consequences, from censorship to imprisonment. Earlier this year, China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Rankings for 2017.

In the introduction to their recent report, CPJ notes that the global census of imprisoned journalists is at a historical high, and says that the Trump administration’s lack of attention to human rights issues is partly responsible:

Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

[…] In China, the number of journalists behind bars rose to 41 from 38 a year earlier. On a visit to Beijing in November, Trump made no public reference to human rights, despite an ongoing crackdown that has led to the arrests of Chinese journalists, activists, and lawyers. With tensions high between the U.S. and China’s neighbor North Korea, and Trump keen to renegotiate the trade balance with Beijing, “Trump seemed to signal areversal of roles: the United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around,” The New York Times wrote.

The visit came shortly after Xi tightened his grip on power at the Communist Party Congress, where his name was written into the Constitution and no successor was identified. According to news reports, analysts don’t expect improvement in human rights. [Source]

In particular, President Trump’s labeling of media reports that are critical of him as “” has emboldened other governments that do not support a free press. In China, officials have previously used the term “fake news” for reporting that is critical of the government, and Trump’s rhetoric has given the phrase a new life there. From a recent People’s Daily op-ed under the byline Curtis Stone:

“Very little discussion of all the purposely false and defamatory stories put out this week by the Fake News Media. They are out of control – correct reporting means nothing to them. Major lies written, then forced to be withdrawn after they are exposed…a stain on America!” Trump said on Sunday.

In fact, the problem of fake news is nothing new to China. For years, China has long been on the receiving end of Western media bias. Rather than focus on China’s achievements in poverty alleviation and human rights or the benefits of stronger China-US relations for instance, China is often cast in a negative light and frequently attacked in the Western media. In addition, reports by official media are often dismissed as “propaganda” in order to discredit them.

All this shows that putting the Western interpretation of events on a pedestal is part of the fake news problem that China and other countries have been battling for years. If the President of the United States claims that his nation’s leading media outlets are a stain on America, then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture. [Source]

This week, the Chinese military launched a website aimed at helping the public “report leaks and fake news.” As Reuters reports: “Citizens are encouraged to use the platform to report online content that attacks the military’s absolute leadership and distorts the history of the military and the Communist Party, the website said.”