A Chinese journalist and anti-corruption blogger has been jailed for 15 years after being accused of criticising the Communist Party through commentaries and investigative reports posted on social media platforms.
Chen Jieren has been detained since 2018 after he published two blog articles claiming corruption by Hunan party officials. Following his detention Chinese state media said Mr Chen's online reporting had "sabotaged the reputation of the party and the government and damaged the government's credibility".
Guiyang county court in Hunan province announced on Thursday it had finally convicted Mr Chen of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles", a charge that is often shorthand for criticising or challenging the party.
The court also convicted him of "illegal business activity", and extortion, blackmail and bribery, and fined him 7 million yuan (€900,000). His brother, Chen Weiren, was jailed for four years on the same charges. The court said the pair had posted "false and negative" information online "to hype relevant cases".
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders organisation said the defendants were convicted for exercising their right to free expression. The group said Chinese authorities had “violated the defendants’ rights to a fair trial” and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
Freedom of expression has always been tightly controlled in China but the stranglehold has tightened since President Xi Jinping took the party helm in 2012. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders listed China as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom – ranking it number 177 out of 180 countries surveyed.
Beijing is under global scrutiny for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, including the silencing of whistleblowers and the covering up of early information on the spread of the virus.
The Hunan case comes as China is reasserting full control over the online space following a mass outpouring of domestic anger at the party when news of the death of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang broke on social media.
Two independent Chinese journalists have been missing for two months, presumed to be in police custody, after they reported on the initial outbreak from Wuhan. A third resurfaced last week after two months and confirmed he had been detained. High profile commentators who have written essays critical of the party's response to Covid-19 have also been brought into custody.
Three Beijing activists who were preserving and archiving digital reports relating to the outbreak on Github that were being deleted by Chinese censors were arrested earlier this week, also charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.
The foreign press has faced an unprecedented crackdown in China. Over recent months Beijing has expelled about 20 foreign journalists with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, three outlets that were covering the coronavirus outbreak extensively.
Beijing officials said three of the Wall Street Journal reporters were expelled for an op-ed headline in the paper that they found objectionable, while the others were kicked out in retaliation for new restrictions on the number of Chinese nationals who can work for Chinese state-run media in the US.