A journalist who had worked for some of China’s most powerful propaganda outlets will linger in jail for up to 15 years for “attacking the ruling Communist Party” after being sentenced by a local court, days ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 03.
Guiyang County People’s Court sentenced journalist Chen Jieren to 15 years imprisonment on April 30 after finding him guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, “extortion and blackmail”, “illegal business activity”, and “bribery.”
The sentence handed down on Chen is one of the harshest moves yet against free speech by China’s government under President Xi Jinping, who has muzzled the press and ordered Chinese media outlets to serve the ruling Communist Party’s interests.
The outspoken Chen had been fired from various state newspapers including Southern Weekend, China Youth Daily, Beijing Daily, and People’s Daily.
He then took to social media platforms WeChat and Weibo, where he published online commentaries and investigative reports.
According to the court, Chen “used the internet to publish false or negative information, maliciously exaggerate certain mass incidents, attack and vilify the [ruling Chinese Communist]Party and the government, judicial organs and their staff, instigate troubles, and extort public and private property.”
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said Chen had been deprived of a fair trial. It said Chinese state media had launched a smear campaign accusing Chen of various crimes and quoting police as saying that his online speech “sabotaged the reputation of the Party and the government and damaged the government’s credibility” as early as August, while his formal arrest didn’t come until November.
State media also published Chen’s “confession” while he was incommunicado in a secret detention facility, under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), CHRD said.
“Chen’s heavy punishment sends a chilling signal to online independent commentators and citizen journalists,” the group said.
The CHRD is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
International press freedom groups also warned of growing curbs on media workers by China ahead of World Press Freedom Day.
International Press Institute executive director Barbara Trionfi said journalists around the world have found themselves confronted not only with the risk of infection, “but also with the threat of arrest, beatings or physical assault by security forces or criminal charges due to reporting on the virus.”
“It is crucial that extraordinary restrictions on media imposed during the crisis do not become normalized and outlive the immediate health crisis, especially when it comes to lack of transparency by governments, lack of access by media to decision-makers and any form of surveillance hindering the press,” Trionfi said.
The IPI said the situation is worsening in China.
“In already heavily censored China, the Communist Party further ramped up policing of the internet, suppressed “unofficial” media reporting and persecuted citizen journalists reporting on social media about the reality of the situation,” the group warned in a report for World Press Freedom Day.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked China 177th out of 180 countries in an annual global press freedom index earlier this month. (Source: RFA)