Get subscribed to our newsletter
Get interesting updates to your email inbox.
Journalist Megha Rajagopalan has made a name for herself over the years covering the plight of Uyghurs in the autonomous Xinjiang region in northwestern China.
When Beijing denied her visa renewal in 2018, the Buzzfeed News reporter refused to be deterred. With access to residents and on-the-ground reporting limited, Rajagopalan found unique ways to broaden her coverage.
Her efforts, which included analyzing satellite imagery to search for evidence of mass prison and internment camps, earned Rajagopalan and her team -- architect Alison Killing and digital security trainer Christo Buschek--a Pulitzer Prize this year.
The United States, Britain, United Nations and others have condemned Beijing for human rights abuses including reports of torture, forced labor and sterilization in Xinjiang — sometimes called East Turkestan by Uyghurs and their supporters -- where China is detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups.
Beijing denies wrongdoing and rejects accusations by some that the abuses constitute genocide. It has accused Western media of bias and fake news over the coverage, and expelled or refused to renew visas for some journalists.
In Rajagopalan's case, she says Beijing never provided a clear reason for denying her visa.
But while Rajagopalan told VOA she couldn't definitively say why the visa was blocked, "it did come a few months after our first big piece from Xinjiang."
Rajagopalan said she never considered stopping reporting on China after she left in 2018voa
Rajagopalan said she never considered stopping reporting on China after she left in 2018. She knew there was still a lot to uncover in Xinjiang and believed that could be done from outside.
The following are excerpts from a VOA interview with Rajagopalan. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: When Beijing declined to renew your visa, did you ever consider changing direction? What pushed you to still report on China?
Megha Rajagopalan: I have a unique job in that I get to cover a broad range of issues, often in different parts of the world, and that was true both when I was based in China and now. After I left China, I mainly wanted to continue reporting on the Xinjiang story because of the scale of the harm being done to people, the fact that there were ways to cover it from abroad including interviewing exiles, and because there was, and continues to be, a lot to uncover.
Since losing access, I've relied on interviewing Uyghur and Kazakh exiles who left the country and have relatively fresh memories of their experiences in Xinjiang. Other journalists, even those based in China, have used this same technique very successfully. It's helpful because of the ethical quandary of interviewing in Xinjiang, where sources often face police harassment and other repercussions.
I was extremely lucky to work with (geospatial analyst) Alison because she brought a totally different perspective and set of skills to approach the problem of geolocating camps and prisons in Xinjiang. Because we couldn't drive to all these camps and prisons, this was a different approach to documenting their locations.
Interviewing former detainees helped us fill in details that we couldn't get from satellite images alone. Former detainees helped us verify locations of camps and prisons, and conversely, using satellite images (meant) we could corroborate parts of their stories.
VOA: You started reporting on the experiences of Uyghurs in China a little less than a decade ago. How has your reporting, and more broadly, international coverage of this issue evolved since then?
Rajagopalan: I think the biggest evolution has been the period after about 2017, which is when we started to see and hear about internment camps and mass surveillance.
My biggest challenge today is lack of access, but that's a problem that all journalists working on China face to different degrees, including those in the country.
VOA: What does your experience of reporting on Xinjiang underscore about the current state of press freedom in China?
Rajagopalan: Diminishing freedom for the press in China has a much deeper impact on Chinese journalists and publications than it does on non-Chinese reporters like myself.
I feel very lucky in that I've been able to report on Xinjiang for many years, and though I've encountered some obstacles, nobody has ever stopped me from publishing my work. It would be a better world if journalists with Chinese nationality had the same freedom to investigate and to publish.
State media in China routinely criticize international reporting on Xinjiang--as well as a number of other topics. Determining the impact of these kinds of reports outside China is a difficult but worthwhile question.
VOA: Do you think the free press in democratic countries has been doing enough to cover the situation facing the Uyghurs?
Rajagopalan: It's really important to understand that press freedom exists on a scale. It's not a binary thing where some countries simply have it or others do not. Journalists routinely face government pressure and attacks in democratic countries including the United States.
Conversely, there are many exceptional journalists working in authoritarian countries. I know some, outside China, who have pushed for their publications to cover the Xinjiang issue.
Building more awareness that these abuses are taking place is always good, but it's not a solution in and of itself. (VOA/RN)
Keywords: China, Rajagopalan, Xinjiang, Uyghur
By- Lin Yang
Writers sharing their experiences of the COVID pandemic or expressing views on their cultural heritage are at increased risk in China, which accounts for nearly one-third of all the 273 writers, academics, and intellectuals in jail in 2020.
The number imprisoned increased from 2019, largely because of the pandemic, according to a new index compiled by rights group PEN America. Its Freedom to Write Index, which tracks jailed writers and public intellectuals worldwide, showed China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey accounting for half of all cases.
“Political leaders around the world—in autocracies and fragile democracies alike—have used the pandemic and protest movements as an excuse to further constrain rights rather than expand them,” the report said, adding that some countries have wielded laws about disinformation as a means of silencing the truth.
Follow NewsGram on LinkedIn to know what’s happening around the world.
Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression At Risk Programs, said during a virtual report released last month that the situation is poor in China.
“China has jailed 81 writers. This is far more than any other country, primarily due to the arrests of writers and commentators who critiqued their government’s response to the COVID pandemic and other policies, as well as new information coming to light about detentions in the Xinjiang region,” she said. COVID is a disease caused by the coronavirus.
The report cited the case of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was the first in China to sound the alarm over the COVID pandemic. He was detained by the police for spreading rumors about public health and later died after succumbing to the virus.
Several citizen journalists, including Zhang Zhan and Chen Qiushi, were also detained by Chinese authorities for reporting and documenting the COVID pandemic. A poet, Zhang Wenfang, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for an online poem that included vignettes of people’s experiences of the pandemic, PEN found.
In addition, Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Tsinghua University Law School, was placed under house arrest for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. He was later detained for seven days on charges that he had solicited a sex worker in 2018 and subsequently expelled by the school.
Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at the U.S. government-funded non-profit Freedom House, told VOA that aside from the risk of detention, writers can find themselves under economic pressure if authorities shut down their web pages or accounts.
“Some writers who were previously able to write and share their writing through unofficial channels like WeChat or Weibo, their accounts get shut down, and that means they have to get another job,” Cook told VOA Mandarin. WeChat and Weibo are major messaging apps and social media platforms in China. Weibo is akin to Twitter.
She said that this pushes people to jump the firewall and publish in more independent or critical outlets outside China. “The fact that they wrote for some of these outlets or published by some of these outlets can be perceived as subversive and get them into trouble,” Cook said.
China has rejected criticism of its rights record by rights groups and accused the United States of being hypocritical, pointing to the arrests during protests in the U.S. last year.
Among the 81 writers and public intellectuals jailed in China, nearly half are from the Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong.
Freedom House’s Cook said the conditions for these people are much more dangerous, and the likelihood of serving time in prison is very high.
“I think the situation, especially in Xinjiang, is that so many of these people when they wrote the content it was OK. And then there’s been this retroactive punishment with things that were previously on the safe side of the red line suddenly aren’t,” Cook said. “That’s one reason you’ve seen so many Uyghur intellectuals including professors, writers, and songwriters being swept up in these latest detention sweeps in 2017.”
“It matters a lot who you are and particularly what religious or ethnic community you are from,” she said.
In 2017, Qurban Mamut, a well-known Uyghur writer, and editor-in-chief of Xinjiang Culture magazine went missing after visiting his son in the United States. Later, his family learned that he was arrested and detained in Xinjiang’s so-called re-education or mass detention camps.
Bahram Sintash, Mamut’s son, said that Beijing is trying to prevent journalists and writers like his father from recording the Uyghur culture.
“Right now the atmosphere of the Uyghur society (is that they are) without their own intellectuals, without their own books, without anything to let the Uyghurs learn about their own culture and language,” he said at the press briefing. “Previous generations like my father and other intellectuals, they no longer can write about Uyghurs, and they are mostly in camps and jail.”
China has denied all accusations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang and said that the mass incarceration camps are “a place for de-radicalization” and “not a prison.”
PEN America’s Karlekar said attempts to remove cultural heritage by jailing writers is a worrying trend globally.
“We see that writers who speak out and preserve linguistic rights, speak out about different cultures are under attack or threat. Their very writing and work is also a way of cultural preservation,” she said. “In countries that are really trying to crack down on ethnic or religious minority groups, these people are really being targeted.”
The PEN report found that overall, the Asia-Pacific region jailed the most writers and intellectuals. In total, 121 – nearly half of the global count including China – were detained in Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. (VOA/KB)
By Rikar Hussein
During a global crisis like COVID-19, the media play an important role in helping ensure people have access to independent news.
But from western democracies to authoritarian governments in Asia and Latin America, authorities have increasingly used the pandemic to stifle press freedom.
In China and Iran, authorities moved to tightly censor media during the outbreak. The countries rank 177th and 173rd respectively out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which countries with the worst conditions receive a higher score.
Follow NewsGram on Twitter to stay updated about the World news.
Countries including the United States, South Africa, and India have tried to restrict access to briefings or demand that journalists speak with only government-approved health experts. Reporters in Ukraine, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere have been physically attacked while trying to report on lockdown measures.
In regions that were already repressive or experiencing unrest, the risk of violence and arrest is higher.
“Authoritarian regimes have broadly used the coronavirus pandemic to tighten control over the media and to increase state censorship,” Dokhi Fassihian, the U.S. executive director of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA.
“There has been no shortage of pretexts: avoiding panic, combating fake news and disinformation, persuading the public to comply with health directives, and of course, reassuring everyone by projecting the image of a functional and effective government,” Fassihian said.
Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said independent media can act as the first line of defense against the pandemic by providing steady and reliable information about the virus and government responses.
“Those leaders try to peddle the narrative that they are in control. So, a journalist going to a hospital which is overwhelmed, going to a testing site which isn’t up and running, and reporting on the terrible economic conditions that people are suffering is a threat to those in administration,” said Mahoney.
“We need to salute those journalists and bloggers that are trying to hold power to account because people’s lives depend on it,” he said.
Journalists working overseas told VOA about their challenges covering COVID-19, either in places experiencing unrest and hardship, or where the media are restricted or censored.
Issues included restrictions, obstacles to accessing information, and arrests, and accusations of false news for reporting on the pandemic or criticizing authorities. Other barriers included internet restrictions and reporting in the field when personal protective equipment is in short supply.
Several said restrictions imposed during the lockdown have cut communities off from access to information at a vital time. Others highlighted how their reporting helped bring change by reporting on hospital workers not receiving pay or children being exposed to risk. (VOA/KB)
Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the “Butcher of Kabul” across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where — for now — traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
“Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media,” Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
“We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media,” Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar — the birthplace of Taliban — told AFP.
“There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press.”
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishmentand risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world’s deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul’s chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organizations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world’s lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
“We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don’t think they would like our programs,” said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar. “There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements,” he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
“We won’t allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society,” he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
“Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks,” NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to “the dark era”. (VOA)