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SILENCED

Another citizen journalist covering the coronavirus has gone missing in Wuhan

Jane Li
By Jane Li

China tech reporter

From our Obsession

Because China

Even small changes in China have global effects.

A second Chinese citizen journalist who had been covering China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak from its epicenter in Wuhan has gone missing just days after the disappearance of Chen Qiushi, a former rights lawyer who was video blogging from the city.

Fang Bin, a Wuhan businessman who had been posting videos filmed from city hospitals, was allegedly arrested on Sunday (Feb. 9, link in Chinese), according to Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK, the same day he posted a 12-second video of a piece of paper with the words “resist all citizens, hand the power of the government back to the people” written on it, which he read aloud. RTHK, which didn’t name its source, said that plain-clothes police officers accompanied by fire fighters broke down Fang’s door to enter his flat. Hua Yong, a Chinese artist and rights activist, told Quartz yesterday that Fang’s friends had separately told him of the arrest.

In China, citizen journalists are rare because they can’t obtain the official certificate required for reporting news as they don’t work for a registered outlet—but amid increased public anger against the authorities, some have taken on the risk of offering the outside world a first-hand glimpse of the situation in Wuhan. But as China’s government struggles to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 1,110 and infected close to 45,000 people, it has also stepped up efforts to contain the narrative around the epidemic and keep public anger centered on local authorities. In addition to dispatching journalists to produce more “positive” coverage from Wuhan, Beijing has censored the more critical coverage from Chinese media, and is silencing specific voices.

Yaqui Wang, China researcher for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, noted that it appears that “authorities are as equally, if not more, concerned with silencing criticism as with containing the spread of the coronavirus,” repeating a pattern seen in past public emergencies as well.

“But the Chinese government needs to learn from experience and understand that freedom of information, transparency and the respect for human rights facilitate disease control, not hinder it, so Chinese authorities are doing themselves a disservice by disappearing Fang and Chen,” she told Quartz via email. “And now with the international attention on the two men, the disappearances certainly don’t help with the ‘open, transparent and responsible’ narrative the government wants to make the world believe.”

Fang’s apparent detention follows that of Chen, who had been posting mobile phone videos of packed hospitals and distraught relatives on YouTube and Twitter until Feb. 4; his family and friends say they haven’t been able to contact him since Thursday (Feb. 6). Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial artist and a friend of Chen, said in a YouTube video that Chen had been placed in a mandatory quarantine. News of Chen’s disappearance came as the country was plunged into mourning last week because of the death on Friday of Li Wenliang, a doctor who had tried to warn other medical workers about an outbreak of mysterious pneumonia cases in December, but he was admonished by police for spreading “rumors.” The death prompted calls for the government to apologize to Li’s family, and sent the phrase #I want free speech# trending on social media until it was censored.

US lawmakers and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists have called for Chen’s release.

“Authorities in Wuhan must disclose whether they are holding journalist Chen Qiushi. If they are, then he should be released immediately,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, DC, on Monday. “China does not seem to have learned the clear lesson that bottling up the truth about a spreading illness will only make matters worse.”

Fang began driving around Wuhan last month to document the situation, and posted his first YouTube video on Jan. 25, two days after Wuhan was put on lockdown as infections surged. In one of Fang’s most widely circulated videos, an older male patient was seen lying on a hospital bed surrounded by several medical workers in protective gear and a tearful young man who was making a phone call, saying “he is dying.” “How is he related to you?” Fang asked the man. “Father, he is my father,” the man said, his voice trembling.

The same video, shown below, also showed Fang counting body bags loaded inside a minibus parked at a hospital. “Eight, there are eight bags,” he said in the video published on Feb. 1.

That video, viewed close to 200,000 times on YouTube, soon drew the attention of the authorities, who went to his flat the same day he posted it.

“Who are you?” Fang asked in a video that shows masked men in hazmat suits waiting at his door. “Just open the door and you will find out,” said one of the men, who also told Fang that they were worried about his health since he had been to the hospitals. Despite Fang’s response that his temperature was normal and a request for the men to show their search warrants, the men broke into his flat and took him to a police station. Fang later told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that the police officers—there were no doctors among them, he said—accused him of receiving foreign funding and told him to stop “posting rumors,” the same accusation that was leveled at Li, the deceased doctor.

Queries to the Wuhan police about Fang and Chen didn’t immediately receive an answer.

Chen shared some of the videos made by Fang, including the one showing the police arrest on Feb. 1, and said in a tweet, “Citizen journalists in Wuhan are awakening, you can’t arrest all of them.”

Fang was soon released by the police, which he believed was thanks to the attention his arrest got inside and outside of China. “I have been saying my safety totally relies on all of you. There is no use being afraid or begging as that will do nothing. That is why I think our movement right now should become: everyone saving each other,” Fang said in a video recorded after his release.

This time, no one can be sure whether Fang or Chen will resurface soon.

Update, Feb. 12: This story was updated on the day of publication with a statement from Human Rights Watch.