China | On World Press Freedom Day, global NGOs call for release of detained journalists

03.05.2018

As the world recognises the importance of a free press, ISHR joins with global NGOs to urge China to release Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk. It is also a moment to highlight recommendations to China on media freedoms and freedom of expression, part of a new joint report from ISHR and the Committee on the Protection of Journalists.

Image of Tashi Wangchuk

Attacks on freedom of expression, and criminalisation of free speech, are becoming increasingly blatant in China. On World Press Freedom Day, and ahead of China's human rights review at the UN later this year, ISHR is joining with a number of rights organisations to call on China to take concrete steps to release detained activists, amend its laws, and allow its citizens - indeed anyone - to peacefully express critical or dissenting views.

One of those people is Tashi Wangchuk. He was detained on 27 January 2016 for peacefully advocating for Tibetan language education - and for talking to the New York Times about this advocacy. 

More than two years later, he has been tried secretly, but not yet sentenced, for the purported crime of  'inciting separatism'. 

Global NGOs released today a joint open letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping calling for Tashi Wangchuk's release, in line with China's domestic laws and its international commitments to uphold human rights. It describes briefly Tashi's background, and the history of the case:

Tashi Wangchuk began raising public concern for the lack of rightful Tibetan-language education after local authorities in his native Kyegundo (Chinese: Yushu) County forced the closure of local Tibetan language classes and he was unable to find another school to teach his two teenage nieces.

In late 2015, Tashi Wangchuk spoke with the New York Times in an interview about his attempts to promote the teaching of Tibetan; he insisted the interview be on the record. A journalist from the New York Times also accompanied him to Beijing, where Tashi Wangchuk attempted to file a lawsuit to ensure local authorities guarantee the provision of Tibetan language education. The result was an article and video documentary featured in the New York Times in November 2015.

The prosecution of Tashi Wangchuk appears to be linked to his interview with the international media about his advocacy for Tibetan language rights: indeed, the New York Times’ video documentary was presented as evidence at his trial.

Says ISHR's Asia advocate Sarah M Brooks, 'It is absurd, but sadly business-as-usual, that activists and human rights defenders in China risk harassment for speaking to foreign media and diplomats.

'However, Tashi Wangchuk's case, as well as those of lawyer Jiang Tianyong and citizen journalist Huang Qi, is part of a worrying trend of those interactions becoming so-called 'evidence' for the indictment of activists for trumped up state-security related crimes.'

Mr Jiang was recently transferred to a prison to serve a two-year sentence for 'inciting subversion of the state', but his family have lost touch with him and have yet to receive written confirmation of the verdict. Regarding Mr Huang, Amnesty International released an appeal on 2 May raising concerns about a serious deterioration of his health and lack of access to adequate medical care; Huang Qi has been held in pre-trial detention since November 2016.

In fact, the consistent challenges to freedom of expression in China - from censorship in reporting to the criminalisation of VPNs to detentions of citizen journalists - led ISHR and the Committee on the Protection of Journalists to  compile and submit to the UN a joint report and set of recommendations for how China should ensure respect for this fundamental right. This report will inform the official review of China's human rights record later this year, in November 2018. 

The reports notes:

The Chinese government has pursued this policy with a combination of technocratic tools, including a series of laws and regulations limiting or criminalising certain kinds of speech and dissent from mainstream party ideology, and ‘sharp power’ – which includes threats, harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention of citizen journalists and others, both Chinese and foreign... These developments have resulted in concerning ramifications for the protection of freedom of expression and media freedoms in China.

The report covers concerns about the use of internet security laws and governance policies to stifle the production of materials with critical views as an example of this 'technocratic' approach, but adds that it is complemented by an increasing criminalisation of dissent.  Illustrative cases include Mr Huang's, as well as those of the founder of Feixinwen (Not-News) documentation site Lu Yuyu and Weiquanwang founder Liu Feiyue. 

The report calls on other Member States of the UN to recommend, through the Universal Periodic Review process and in their bilateral dialogues, that China: 

•  Ensure a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors can carry out their work without hindrance or fear of reprisal.Repeal Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law, and related legislation, permitting ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’, which has been used to target human rights defenders, including journalists and media workers. 

•  Prohibit the excessive use by Procuratorates and other judicial organs of rights-related online speech (e.g., blogs, emails, WeChat or Weibo posts) as evidence in criminal trials.

•  Allow unimpeded access to VPNs by internet users within the Chinese government’s jurisdiction, including in ethnic minority autonomous regions.

•  Request technical assistance from the relevant Special Procedures and other independent, international experts to review and establish a timeline for repealing or amending legislation which places restrictions on freedom of information and expression that go beyond what is permitted in international human rights law.

•  Establish a transparent process, in line with international best practices, for appealing the removal of online content, and ensure that anyone who engages in the process is protected from harassment or intimidation.

In addition to these structural changes, ISHR's Brooks emphasizes the need for an upcompromising approach to calls for release of Mr Tashi Wangchuk and others detained for sharing information and expressing views related to human rights. As the joint letter states: 

The Chinese government must comply with its international obligations to respect the rights of the Tibetan people, including their rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as their religious, cultural and linguistic rights. We call on the Chinese government today, on World Press Freedom day, to immediately and unconditionally release Tashi Wangchuk.

The full text of the 'Open Letter To President Xi Jinping' can be accessed here.

For more information, contact Sarah M Brooks at s.brooks[at]ishr.ch, or follow her at @sarahmcneer.

Image credit: Tibet Network