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.”


Twitter warns global users their tweets violate Pakistani law

Updated 11 December 2018
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Twitter warns global users their tweets violate Pakistani law

  • Pakistan has previously threatened to block Twitter if the company did not remove content its government found offensive
  • Pakistan banned Facebook for hosting allegedly blasphemous content for two weeks in 2010 while YouTube was unavailable from 2012 to 2016 over an amateur film about the Prophet Muhammad that led to global riots

WASHINGTON: When Canadian columnist Anthony Furey received an email said to be from Twitter’s legal team telling him he may have broken a slew of Pakistani laws, his first instinct was to dismiss it as spam.
But after Googling the relevant sections of Pakistan’s penal code, the Toronto Sun op-ed editor was startled to learn he stood accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad — a crime punishable by death in the Islamic republic — and Twitter later confirmed the correspondence was genuine.
His perceived offense was to post cartoons of the prophet several years ago.
Furey and two prominent critics of extremism in Islam say they are “shocked” to have received notices by the social media giant this past week over alleged violations of Islamabad’s laws, despite having no apparent connection to the South Asian country.
They say the notices amount to an effort to stifle their voices — a charge Twitter denies, arguing the notices came about as a result of “valid requests from an authorized entity,” understood to mean Pakistan, helped users “to take measures to protect their interests,” and the process is not unique to any one country.
But Furey is the third prominent user in the space of days to publicly complain about receiving a message linked to Pakistan.
The other two are Saudi-Canadian activist Ensaf Haidar and Imam Mohammad Tawhidi, a progressive Muslim scholar from Australia who was born in Iran.
Both are outspoken critics of religious extremism and have accused the social media giant of helping to silence progressive ideas within Islam.
Furey, who detailed his experience in a column for his newspaper on Saturday, told AFP: “I’m somewhat alarmed that Twitter would even allow a country to make a complaint like this, as it almost validates their absurd blasphemy laws.”
The tweet in question was a collage of cartoons of Mohammad that he posted four years ago.
“Looking back, I remember I did it right after there had been an Daesh-inspired attack in retaliation over the cartoons,” Furey wrote in his column, adding he had not posted similar material before or since.
Tawhidi meanwhile was sent a similar notice flagging a tweet that called on Australian police to investigate extremism in mosques following a deadly knife attack in Melbourne in November.
The scholar attached the legal notice sent to him by Twitter informing him of possible violations of Pakistani law, and tweeted: “I am not from Pakistan nor am I a Pakistani citizen.
“Pakistan has no authority over what I say. Get out of here.”
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Twitter told AFP: “In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a valid requests from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
The spokesperson added: “We notify users so that they have the opportunity to review the legal request, and the option to take measures to protect their interests.”
Pakistan has previously threatened to block Twitter if the company did not remove content its government found offensive.
It banned Facebook for hosting allegedly blasphemous content for two weeks in 2010 while YouTube was unavailable from 2012 to 2016 over an amateur film about the Prophet Muhammad that led to global riots.
Furey told AFP that although he was taken aback by the notice, “I’m at least glad they brought it to my attention that the Pakistan government has their eye on me.”
But he added: “One troubling consequence to all of this is that even people in countries without these blasphemy laws may start to self-censor for fear of the reach foreign governments will have over them in the online world.”