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Concerns remain over the health of journalists, writers jailed in China: RSF

Five years after the death of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo from advanced liver cancer during an 11-year prison sentence for subversion, concerns remain for the health of many other free speech advocates who remain behind bars in China, a Paris-based press freedom group has said.

“In China, detained journalists are almost systematically subjected to mistreatment and denied medical care,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement on the fifth anniversary of Liu’s death.

The statement cited the case of political commentator Yang Tongyan who died from an untreated cancer while in detention, and that of Kunchok Jinpa, a leading source of information about Tibet for journalists, who died in 2021 as a result of ill-treatment in prison.

“Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the international community to finally step up pressure on the regime for it to put an end to its policy of censorship and media surveillance,” the group said.

Liu’s sentence came after he co-authored Charter 08, a document calling for sweeping changes to China’s political system that was signed by more than 300 fellow activists on Dec. 10, 2008.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom to choose where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others,” the document demanded.

“Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”

Humanitarian China director Wang Jianhong, who founded the Zhang Zhan Concern Group in support of jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, said Zhang’s health is a matter of grave concern.

“We have no news about Zhang Zhan in nearly six months, and we are actually very worried about her health there in prison,” Wang told RFA.

“While her family saw Zhang Zhan in a video call at the end of January, and said they saw her condition had improved and she could walk by herself, but there was no exact indicator [provided to them], such as her weight,” Wang said.

Zhang is currently serving a four-year jail term for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” after she turned up in the central city of Wuhan and started reporting from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, then in its early stages.

At one point, campaigners said she was on the verge of dying after months of partial hunger strike and forced feeding.

Her family have been denied permission for another video call or an in-person meeting, Wang said.

Jewher Ilham, daughter of jailed Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti, says she fears her father could share Liu Xiaobo’s fate.

“I always feel that my father and Liu Xiaobo were soulmates,” she told RFA. “They have very similar views and expectations, that is, peaceful coexistence; and their experiences are also very similar in that they have been jailed. The experiences of the two of them are also very similar, that is, they were both controlled and detained by the Chinese government.”

“On the anniversary of Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s death, I am not only heartbroken for Liu Xiaobo and his family, but also very worried about my father,” she said.

“I didn’t know what happened to Mr. Liu Xiaobo. And what happened to my father?”

“In a Xinjiang prison, with such a high-pressure environment and very poor hygiene, it is really hard to predict what will happen to my father’s health,” Jewher Ilham said. “I honestly don’t think he will be in very good health in there.”

RSF published a list of 15 free speech defenders currently behind bars whose health is worsening, including China Rights Observer founder Qin Yongmin, dissident Yang Hengjun and Zhang Haitao, Swedish Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui Minhai and Huang Qi, founder of the 64 Tianwang rights website.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.