(New York, NY) – Chinese authorities have reportedly detained and quarantined citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who has been reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. PEN America today said holding Chen incommunicado suggests he may have been targeted for his reporting, and that such actions jeopardize not just his rights but the rights of all Chinese citizens to access information about the epidemic.
“Given China’s widespread censorship of stories about the coronavirus, PEN America is gravely concerned over the possibility that Chen has been arbitrarily detained and that authorities are using ‘quarantine’ as a pretext to justify their actions,” said James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, “Even if Chen is ill, there seems to be no discernable reason why he can’t use a phone or a computer, and yet his friends and family say they’ve heard nothing from him. The Chinese government must be transparent about why Chen has been detained, and if there is no compelling medical reason, they should release him immediately.”
On January 24, Chen–a lawyer, activist, and citizen journalist–traveled to Wuhan to report on the coronavirus outbreak. As part of his coverage, Chen posted a series of videos shot in Wuhan’s hospitals and streets, as well as interviews with coronavirus patients and doctors. On February 6, Chen’s mother posted a video saying that friends and family had not heard from Chen and asking for help locating him. Later that day, a friend of Chen’s posted a video saying authorities had told Chen’s friends and family that he had been forcibly quarantined, although officials apparently have not shared when or where this happened.
Chen began acting as a citizen journalist in 2019, reporting on a flooding disaster in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province. In the summer of 2019, Chen went to Hong Kong to report on the ongoing protests there. Upon his return, authorities reportedly repeatedly questioned him and deleted all his domestic social media accounts. In December of last year, Chen shared on his Twitter, he attempted to travel to Japan but was informed by government officials that he was not allowed to leave the country.
“Chen has been targeted for his work as a citizen journalist before, and we fear that the exact same thing may have happened here,” said PEN America’s Tager. “If he has been detained for his work, this would represent not only an obvious assault on Chen’s freedom of expression but also on the right of all Chinese people to have access to information about serious health threats. It already seems clear that the government’s attempt to censor information about the coronavirus has potentially worsened the public health situation. We urge China’s leaders to take a more transparent approach, and to refrain from targeting those who are speaking up about the coronavirus and the government’s response.”
The outbreak of the coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019. A group of several doctors who first went public with information about the virus were reprimanded by police. Among the whistleblower doctors was 34-year-old opthamologist Li Wenliang, whose subsequent death from the coronavirus has resulted in online outrage and calls for freedom of speech. The government is still reportedly engaging in widespread censorship of coronavirus-related stories and news.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.