China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The dangers of speaking out

Posted by Richard Spencer at 14 Jun 06 11:14 Via

At the risk of inflaming anti-journalist passions further, I feel today I should return to the question of what we journalists are up to in China.

The pretext for this is the fate of a man called Fu Xiancai. He is a regular activist on the Three Gorges Dam, campaigning for better resettlement
compensation for residents who have been forced to move for the dam and the reservoir.

Three gorges
Part of old Fengjie city was torn down to make way for the dam

Their number are something approaching 1.2 million according to the government, perhaps between 1.5 and 2 million if you include unofficial
residents like migrant workers, unregistered children etc etc.

His work has some validity. Even the government admits there has been corruption and embezzlement involved in the distribution of resettlement
money, and every now and then a local official has been sent down as an example.

In May, according to the German public tv station ARD and Human Rights in China, he gave an interview for a current affairs programme in which he
discussed the dam. This was, as I have previously described, against the rules but not against
common practice.

Unfortunately, he had been warned before about his activism, and attacked - a broken leg last year, followed by a few blows to the head.

Last week, he was summoned to his local police station to be ticked off about his "oppositionism" and told no good would come of it. On his way back home, he was whacked from behind, and left unconscious in a ditch.

Now he is in hospital, paralysed from the waist down, having suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck. Visitors are not being allowed in to see
him, so the information comes via his family.

This is a pretty chilling incident for reporters. We are often intruding into sensitive areas, and deciding how to treat our interviewees is a very difficult one. He is not the first to be beaten up for talking to the press. Others have been jailed, sometimes for substantial terms.

When I did some reporting in the Three Gorges about the same issue, I gave all the people I spoke to pseudonyms, a common enough practice. On the other
hand, that's much more difficult for television, which understandably wants the people they speak to to be visible.

In any case, many activists want their voices to be heard openly, sometimes because they are over-brave or even publicity-seekers, sometimes because
they have a genuine belief that to "go public" is a way of demanding their rights and showing they are not afraid.

In some cases, there is no doubt that bringing activists' name to international attention is the best way of protecting them.

I don't think any journalist here is going to stop doing interviews just because of the threat of violence. We all wonder whether we do enough to
protect our sources, however.

It would help if governments were more publicly proactive in this regard - one hopes that the German embassy and not just the television station is
writing a letter of protest. There are signs that embassies are showing more interest in this area.

But I still wonder from time to time whether I should ask the paper for a couple of months off, just so I can search out the rebels and complainers
and others who have appeared in my stories over the years, and find out what, if anything, has happened to them.

Blog update: The German foreign ministry has indeed now just put out a statement on the Fu Xiancai case. To quote from the Associated Press: "We are dealing with a terrible misdeed that cannot remain without consequences," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said.

He said Germany's embassy in Beijing on Wednesday told the Chinese government that the incident must be investigated and "those responsible must be found and brought to justice."

German officials also called on China to ensure that Fu gets the "necessary medical care" and stressed that working conditions for foreign correspondents in Beijing "must be arranged in such a way that proper work is possible," Jaeger said.

Chinese officials "agreed to examine the incident and report on the result,"he added.

Let's hope other embassies and governments follow suit, as appropriate.

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