US journalists fear China detained their families

US-based journalists fear that Chinese authorities have snatched their relatives as punishment for their reports on the mass detention of Uighurs in “political reeducation centers” across Xinjiang. (AFP)
Updated 05 March 2018
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US journalists fear China detained their families

BEIJING: When American journalist Gulchehra Hoja and her colleagues first began exposing a secretive network of reeducation centers in China’s far west, they never imagined that their families might one day end up in one.
But when calls to relatives went unanswered, they realized that something had gone terribly wrong in Xinjiang, home to China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
“It was like a bomb going off in my head,” said Hoja, a reporter at the US government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) news service, describing how she felt when she learned that as many as 20 of her relatives had disappeared.
She and her colleagues fear Chinese authorities snatched their family members as punishment for their reports on the mass detention of Uighurs in “political reeducation centers” across Xinjiang.
The authorities are “using my brother as a kind of hostage to pressure me to quit,” said Mamatjan Juma, an RFA reporter who believes two of his brothers have been detained since May.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on Xinjiang’s 10 million Uighurs, placing draconian restrictions on their daily lives in the name of combating terror.
Hoja is one of six Uighur reporters whose families are believed to have been detained by Chinese authorities, according to RFA spokesman Rohit MaHajjan, who said the company has discussed the cases with the US State Department and members of Congress.
“We urge the Chinese government to provide information about the health of the missing relatives and to return them safely to their homes post-haste,” Libby Liu, RFA’s president, said in a statement.
US embassy Beijing spokeswoman Jinnie Lee said Washington is “concerned” by the detentions and “deeply troubled by reports of an ongoing and deepening crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslims in China.”
The Chinese foreign ministry declined to comment.
Some of the reporters have waited almost a year for movement on the cases, but decided to make their stories public after seeing no progress.
RFA’s Uighur service was launched in December 1998 to broadcast Uighur language news into China, part of the company’s mandate to provide news to Asian countries “whose governments prohibit access to a free press.”
The journalists began reporting about the mass disappearances late last spring.
People of all ages were being swept up by the police, often for seemingly trivial offenses related to religion, from sending Ramadan greetings to friends on social media to growing a “strange” beard.
By following official social media accounts and calling local police, the reporters learned that tens of thousands were being sent to detention centers for months at a time and subjected to intense political indoctrination.
Chinese authorities have long linked their crackdown on Uighur Muslims to international counter-terrorism efforts, arguing that separatists are bent on joining foreign extremists like Al-Qaeda.
Uighurs have been tied to mass stabbings and bombings that left dozens dead in recent years across the country. Riots and clashes with the government killed hundreds more.
Chinese authorities have denied the detention centers exist.
But regulations aimed at curbing religious extremism adopted by Xinjiang’s government last March clearly call for authorities to step up the use of political reeducation.
An AFP review of state media reports and government documents verified the existence of at least 30 such centers and almost 4,000 cases of people being sent to them.
Shortly after RFA began posting its first reports on the centers, information about them began to disappear from Chinese websites.
Hoja started a career in local television at the age of 11 and had become a popular television host in Xinjiang.
But a radio broadcast from RFA changed her life: “It was so powerful. I’d never heard that kind of voice. It completely changed me.”
She joined RFA in 2001.
When Chinese authorities realized she had fled the country, they began pressuring her parents into making her come back, promising a high-paying job and luxury housing.
During her 17 years at RFA, none of her relatives had been detained — until last spring.
When she heard the news through friends with relatives living in the US, she frantically tried to contact her family members, but no one answered, she said.
She finally reached an aunt: “She said ‘don’t call me. Don’t call anybody. Just hang up’.”
Despite concerns for their families, the reporters vow to continue their work.
“This is the only voice for my voiceless people,” Hoja said.
“Other listeners just give their time to listen to the radio. Uighurs give their lives.”


News anchors join New Zealand women wearing headscarves for mosque attack victims

Updated 22 March 2019
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News anchors join New Zealand women wearing headscarves for mosque attack victims

  • The AM Show news anchor Amanda Gillies said the gesture 'shows we are united'
  • Newsreaders began broadcasts with Islamic greetings

CHRISTCHURCH: News anchors in New Zealand joined women across the country in wearing headscarves as a show of solidarity on Friday for the victims of last week’s mosques shooting. 

The newsreaders covering the memorial events for the 50 people killed by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, began broadcasts with Islamic greetings.

They included The AM Show news anchor Amanda Gillies, who said she agonized over whether to cover her hair with a peach-colored scarf.

"There's no way a week ago that I would have, because I would have thought it would have been deemed inappropriate, not right, that I was insulting the Muslim community," Gillies said.

"I'll be honest - I did angst over it today whether I should wear it, because I didn't want to be inappropriate or offend the Muslim community. But I know that they are so welcoming and accepting of it, and I know that a lot of women will wear it today because it just shows that we are united - the solidarity is there, the love and support is there."

Elsewhere, women across the country wore hijabs on an emotional day when the shocked  nation came together to remember those killed.

 A journalist wearing a headscarf as tribute to the victims of the mosque attacks uses her phone before Friday prayers at Hagley Park outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 22, 2019. (Reuters)

Rafaela Stoakes, a 32-year-old mother of two, said wearing the Islamic head covering gave her an insight into what it means to stand out and feel part of the minority.

On Friday morning she covered all but a few locks of her dark chestnut-coloured hair in a loose red and white scarf, crossed neatly beneath her chin and tucked into a black hiking jacket.

She was one of many women embracing #HeadScarfforHarmony, to make a stand against the hate espoused by the Australian man who killed dozens of worshippers.

Headscarves were also worn as a mark of respect by policewomen and non-Muslim volunteers directing the crowds around the site in Christchurch holding communal prayers on Friday.

Many were wearing a headscarf for the first time.

"It is amazing how different I felt for the short time I was out this morning," Stoakes told AFP.

"There were a lot of confused looks and some slightly aggressive ones," she said.

"I did feel a sense of pride to honour my Muslim friends, but I also felt very vulnerable and alone as I was the only person wearing one."

"It must take a lot of courage to do this on a daily basis."

The gesture caught on nationwide -- in offices, schools and on the streets -- as well as at the ceremonies held in Christchurch to mark one week since the killings at the hands of a self-avowed white supremacist.

Women flooded Twitter, Facebook and other social media -- which played a key role in allowing the gunman to spread his message -- with their images.

Kate Mills Workman, a 19-year-old student from Wellington, posted a selfie on Twitter wearing a green headscarf.

"If I could I would be attending the mosque and standing outside to show my support for my Muslim whanau but I've got lectures and I can't really skip them," she told AFP, using a Maori language term for extended family.

"Obviously this is all spurred on by the terrible tragedy in Christchurch, but it's also a way of showing that any form of harassment or bigotry based on a symbol of religion is never okay," she added.

"As New Zealanders, we have to make a really strong stand."

Although the headscarf has been the subject of contentious debate over gender rights in the Islamic world, for Stoakes the day has been a lesson in how pious Muslim women often do not have the option to melt away into the background when they feel vulnerable.

"We can nod and pretend to agree with people who we are afraid of, or plead ignorance if we feel in danger of confrontation," she said.

"But a Muslim is just right out there. Like a bullseye. Their hijabs and clothing speak before they do."