Detentions raise old questions about protecting journalists

By Emma Lupano — Just one week after the arrest in Beijing of Li Min, a CCTV journalist accused of taking bribes while covering a story in Shanxi, Chinese media reported last week that Guan Jian, another Beijing journalist, had been ”taken away” by the police in early December while on a reporting stint to the same province. [Frontpage Image: "Locked and Chained" by Darwin Bell available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

It is still not clear precisely what circumstances led to the arrest of Guan, a journalist from Network News (网络报). Accounts in Chinese media say the journalist went to Shanxi province to investigate a local real estate company.

Media reports have said that Guan Jian was spirited away from a hotel lobby where he was waiting on the afternoon of December 1, when five men forced the reporter into a silver Volkswagen Touareg. Evidence of the “kidnapping,” as some called it, came as hotel video surveillance footage was made public by The Beijing News on December 15.

The day after the footage became national news, one of Guan’s co-workers, Li Chuyi, wrote on his weblog that Guan had been found. A partial translation of the blog post can be found at ESWN. Here is a portion:

At 3pm on December 15, 2008, I received a telephone call from the family of Guan Jian. At 12:32pm, a man claiming to be with the Hebei province Zhangjiakou city police department economic crime investigation squad used Guan Jian’s mobile phone to call them. The man said that Guan Jian was taken away by Zhangjiakou police at 6pm on December 1 from the Jinjiang Star Hotel and is presently criminally detained by the Zhangjiakou police. The man asked the family to bring some money and medicine over. When asked why, the man said that the medicine was for Guan Jian’s coronary heart ailment, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, while the money was for improving Guan Jian’s living conditions at the detention center. Why was Guan Jian taken away? What crime did he commit? Why did they notify the family fourteen days later? The Zhangjiakou policeman refused to answer any of these questions. At 5pm, I contacted the Zhangjiakou city police department economic crime investigation squad on behalf of my work unit. I asked about Guan Jian’s present condition, the reason why he was detained and why they waited so long before informing the family. A police officer named Tian gave unfriendly answers such as “It is not convenient to say,” “It was necessary for the case,” “We informed Guan Jian’s family at noon today.”

Li Chuyi argued that police from Zhangjiakou had violated China’s Criminal Law, which requires notification of local police (in this case, Taiyuan) in the event of cross-jurisdictional arrests, and also specifies that family members be notified within 24 hours of the arrest. Zhangjiakou police have since admitted that they arrested the reporter in Taiyuan.

After initial coverage by The Beijing News, scores of Chinese newspapers followed up on the story and many editorial pages questioned the tactics used by Hebei police to arrest Guan Jian.

One of the first commentaries came from Wang Gangqiao (王刚桥), an academic, in The Beijing News on December 16. A partial translation follows:

Detention by law is OK, but secret arrest is not

Guan Jian, a journalist from Beijing’s Network News mysteriously disappeared in Shanxi province while carrying out reporting in the region. According to surveillance video from the hotel [where the detention occurred], Guan Jian was taken away on December 1 at around 6pm by five people who restrained his arms and forced him into a Volkswagen Touareg. . .

This news left people astonished. Guan Jian has been missing for half a month already, and it was a week ago that his family went to Shanxi province to complain to police. The police opened a case file and launched an investigation, making a preliminary determination that the reporter was “missing.” Shanxi authorities, the victim’s family and his employer put great effort and resources into tracking down this missing person — then we learn out of the blue that the “missing person” was led away by police. Even those with little or not background in the administration of justice would ask to obvious questions: why didn’t police inform the family about the arrest? Even though police authorities in Shanxi said yesterday that Zhangjiakou police made contact with Taiyuan police before taking Guan Jian away, why was it that Guan’s family received no explanation before this? And what are the crimes for which Guan is begin “taken away”? Is his being “taken away” a matter of “summons” (拘传) or of “detention” (拘留)?

The arrest of a journalist in Taiyuan by Zhangjiakou police has bewildered the public, and the police should give the public, including Guan Jian and his family, a single reasonable explanation. If the “taking away” of the suspect was not conducted according to laws and regulations, then those specific police personnel responsible should face proper legal consequences . . . The police cannot arrest people in secret, because justice without procedure is not justice at all.

A December 16 editorial in Kunming’s Spring City Evening News by Nuo Song (傩送) used the Guan Jian case to discuss the social role and plight of journalists working in China today. The editorial accused “certain government authorities” of leaving reporters on their one in the fight against injustice:

Journalist cannot bear on their weak shoulder the entire burden of social justice

Cases of journalists facing violence have become nothing new in recent years. According to survey conducted by China Youth Daily, journalists rank third on a list of most dangerous professions [in China], falling just behind police and miners. With successive versions of “[outside] police entering Beijing to seize journalists” arising from Liaoning and Shanxi provinces, editorial pages at many media have explored the question: how do we protect journalists’ legal right to carry out reporting? And now, with [reporter] Guan Jian missing, people are once again asking: how do we ensure that the bodily safety of journalists is not violated in the process of carrying out reporting?

But this write cares even more about another question. Namely, who is it that puts journalists in harm’s way?

We live in an age in which journalists are “all powerful.” Journalists aren’t just lookouts on the prow, reporters of the truth, or capable detectives — many dark aspects of our society receive the attention of the government only after journalists have revealed them, and we can see this in the Loufan (娄烦) landslide incident and the Sanlu milk powder scandal. Journalists have become the courageous front-line soldiers in the battle to expose social ills, and this is a very dignified thing. But what is regrettable is that they don’t have the hand-to-hand combat skills of 007, and once they are set upon by dark forces they can only surrender to them.

There are many journalists who, like Guan Jian, exceed the call of duty and go beyond the range of their capabilities, and thereby court danger. In many ways this “going beyond” on the part of journalists owes to the fact that certain government authorities are remiss in their duties.

Looking at the case of Guan Jian’s “disappearance”, we can see at least these two major failings [on the part of the government]. First of all, [while a people's congress official is reportedly linked to Guan's detention] the position of deputy director of a local people’s congress means the official in question counts as a national public servant (国家公职人员), and according to the Law on Public Servants, civil servants must not engage in business activities and must not hold positions within companies or profit-making entities. When this deputy director of the local people’s congress took office and was simultaneously a corporate executive at a real estate company, did the local government not know about this, or just pretend not to see?

Secondly, if a Shanxi [real estate] company is suspected of having acted against regulations, should it be necessary to rely on a Beijing journalist traveling thousands of kilometres away to investigate the case? What are the local branches of the national government and the judiciary departments doing exactly? . . .

FURTHER READINGS:
Chinese reporter chasing corruption claims disappears“, Reuters, December 16, 2008
Guan Jian’s case needs procedural justice“, Xi’an Evening News, December 17, 2008
How can they notify family members of the journalist’s arrest 14 days after the fact?“, Chengdu Evening News, December 17, 2008

ON THE LI MIN CASE:
Shanxi prosecutor goes to Beijing to arrest CCTV’s female reporter“, People’s Daily Online, December 8, 2008
CCTV Reporter’s Arrest Causes a Stir“, Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2008

[Posted by Emma Lupano, December 22, 2008, 2:53pm HK]

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