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The latest arrests of journalists and bloggers in China suggest the authorities are punishing those who criticise the government's handling of the earthquake, say IFEX members.

Chinese police arrested retired professor Zeng Hongling in Chengdu, the capital of the earthquake-hit province of Sichuan, on 9 June for publishing personal accounts of the earthquake on Chinese-language websites overseas, reports PEN American Center and PEN Canada, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Then three days later, a well-known Internet publisher and human rights advocate, Huang Qi, went missing in Chengdu after his website publicised Zeng's arrest, say the IFEX members. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), he has been charged with illegally obtaining state secrets.

Huang was forced into a car with two of his friends by three unidentified men on 10 June. RSF says the Chengdu police claimed they know nothing about their whereabouts.

"The arrest and the disappearance of these reporters suggest that authorities in the earthquake zone are beginning to punish those trying to publish information about the terrible disaster in May," says CPJ. "The government in Beijing must protect journalists in Sichuan who are attacked for their reporting rather than spare local Communist Party officials from embarrassment."

Zeng is currently being held incommunicado at a detention centre in Mianyang, her hometown and a city hard-hit by the earthquake, for "illegally providing intelligence overseas", says the Chinese Independent PEN Center. Her articles criticised the insensitivity of local authorities, and their unwillingness to let aid organisations do their job.

Huang, director and co-founder of the Tianwang Human Rights Center in Chengdu, posted stories on his website that criticised the way relief was doled out - all through government channels, and reported on parents protesting the shoddy construction of a school that collapsed in the quake. According to RSF, the Chinese press has been forbidden to cover the collapsed schools story freely.

Two associates working with Huang at Tianwang, Internet writer Huang Xiaomin and webmaster Zhang Qi, were detained on 16 May after saying they planned to join rescue activities in Sichuan, says PEN. Huang Xiaomin was released on 31 May, after extensive questioning about his relation to Huang Qi and their activities at Tianwang. Zhang is being held incommunicado.

Huang Qi spent five years in jail after being arrested on 3 June 2000, the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was charged with subversion for posting articles about the massacre by exiled dissidents on his website, which he originally created as a bulletin board for messages about missing persons, says RSF.

Huang was the first website publisher to be charged with inciting subversion in China. According to CPJ, Chinese authorities repeatedly delayed his trial in 2001 while the International Olympic Committee was considering Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics.

Meanwhile, police expelled around 10 foreign journalists on 12 June from a neighbourhood of Dujiangyan, one of the cities that was badly hit by the earthquake, says RSF. They were trying to do a story about a school that collapsed in the quake. Police manhandled some of the journalists and damaged their equipment.

"We are seeing an all-out hunt for press representatives, with police and soldiers blocking access roads and searching all vehicles," said Tom Van de Weghe, the China correspondent of Belgian radio and TV broadcaster VRT, who was arrested in Dujiangyan and Juyan.

China had promised to ease restrictions on foreign reporters in January 2007 in time for the Olympic Games this August. But so far, it has done little to meet its pledges.

Visit these links:
- CPJ:
- IFJ:
- PEN American Center/PEN Canada:
- RSF:
- CPJ report, "Falling Short", on China's failure to meet press freedom pledges made when the Olympics were awarded:
- PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the Independent Chinese PEN Center, "We are Ready for Freedom of Expression" Olympic countdown campaign,
- IFEX China page:
(17 June 2008)

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