Chinese citizen journalist Fang Bin remains missing after being detained by police in the central city of Wuhan for reporting from the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fang is being held incommunicado following his detention on March 5, 2020. RFA has learned that his family is under huge pressure not to speak to anyone about the case.
Sources said Fang was initially detained on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power,” but that this charge has been revised to “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
His prolonged “disappearance” is sparking concerns for his health and safety.
“It has been a year, and there is still no news of Fang Bin, which is worrying,” U.S.-based dissident in exile Cai Xia said via her Twitter account on Friday. “We mustn’t forget about Fang Bin, or stop looking for him.”
“Those who forge the path to freedom shouldn’t be left to the wolves,” she wrote, adding: “Where is Fang Bin?”
A person familiar with the situation, who gave only a surname, Xu, said many of Fang’s friends have been contacting the authorities in recent days in a bid to discover his whereabouts.
“Fang Bin has a son working in Beijing, but he and Fang Bin’s sister have refused to answer inquiries,” Xu said. “No lawyer is involved in the case.”
“It’s hugely worrying that there has been no news,” he said, adding that Fang’s friends had been hoping for news of him after the U.S. presidential elections and the Biden inauguration in the U.S.
“It’s been a while since the U.S. election, and yet we still have no information about Fang Bin’s case,” Xu said.
Early COVID footage
Fang was initially detained by police after posting footage from several Wuhan hospitals during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a Feb. 1 video clip recording the removal of five dead bodies from the Wuhan No. 5 Hospital in the course of five minutes.
An Wuhan resident familiar with the matter said his initial detention had come on Feb. 10.
“It’s been more than a year,” the person said. “His family members told us that Fang Bin is being held by the police, who were initially going to charge him with ‘incitement to subvert state power’.”
“Recently, they told the family that they were going to change the suspected charge to ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’,” they said.
Fang had hit out at the CCP’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, saying they had presided over not just a natural disaster, but a man-made disaster.
He also said that the cruelty wreaked by the coronavirus was nothing compared with the cruelty perpetrated by “tyranny.”
Government censors are meanwhile deleting any posts about Fang on Chinese social media, as well as sending police around to warn off users.
Crackdown on citizen journalists
A person concerned with the case who asked to remain anonymous said Fang’s supporters wanted the international community to stay focused on the case.
“Fang Bin … was the first to warn the international community of of the severity of the epidemic, because he saw three dead bodies being taken out of a hospital in the space of five minutes, with another in the ER, and eight more in the funeral home vehicle parked outside the doors,” the person said.
Earlier this year, China’s internet regulator announced a crackdown on citizen journalism around the country, banning anyone from posting news-related information online without a license.
The move was announced by Zhuang Rongwen, deputy director of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s central propaganda department, during a Jan. 29 online conference on promoting “orderly communications” on all online platforms, the Cyberspace Administration said in a statement on its official website.
Changes to media regulations three years ago required any organization publishing news or current affairs-related content to hold a license from the country’s media regulator, and the focus on citizen journalism will extend the full implementation of that rule to include both regular citizens and journalists posting on their private accounts to evade censorship.
The move came months after the authorities detained and jailed a number of people for reporting unofficially on the unfolding of the coronavirus pandemic in the central city of Wuhan in the early months of 2020.
All WeChat official accounts were subsequently warned by Tencent not to publish any real-time news or information that hasn’t been through an official approval process.
Sohu and Baijia also issued similar notices to users, banning accounts with no news publishing license from posting on news or current affairs.
According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, the exact whereabouts of Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi remain unknown.
On Dec. 28, 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by the Pudong District People’s Court, which found her guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a charge frequently used to target critics of the government.
She was accused of “posting false information” on overseas social media platforms Twitter and YouTube, and for giving interviews to foreign news organizations.
Meanwhile, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, who tried to preserved censored COVID-19-related data, are still in detention, CHRD said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.