Chinese video journalist who disappeared after covering Wuhan outbreak tops One Free Press Coalition list

Chen Qiushi's videos reported that local hospitals were struggling to handle the number of patients who needed treatment and questioned the arrangements to tackle coronavirus infections. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

"I am scared. In front of me is the virus. Behind me is China's legal and administrative power," said citizen journalist Chen Qiushi in a video on Jan 30 recounting his distressing experience covering the Covid-19 epidemic in the heart of the outbreak, Wuhan.

Mr Chen had taken the last high-speed train into the Chinese city on Jan 24 and spent two weeks documenting overcrowded makeshift hospitals, according to CNN.

His videos reported that local hospitals were struggling to handle the number of patients who needed treatment and questioned the arrangements to tackle coronavirus infections.

He disappeared less than a week later.

He is one of the 10 "Most Urgent" cases of journalists under attack in the latest list of the One Free Press (OFP) Coalition, a group that comprises pre-eminent editors and publishers who safeguard journalists persecuted for pursuing the truth.

Mr Chen, who had sent dispatches from Wuhan over Twitter - which is blocked in China - including images of corpses in the city's hospitals, was forcibly put under quarantine since Feb 7, according to his family and friends, said Reuters.

The disappearance of Mr Chen and other Chinese journalists alongside him have raised concerns over China's tightened media censorship and suppression of information surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak.

In his videos posted on YouTube, where he has 440,000 followers according to the Committee of to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mr Chen had described how doctors' phones had been confiscated to deter news in hospitals from being spread online.

He also criticised Wuhan's lack of medical resources to test, house and treat suspected patients.

"Not enough masks, not enough protective clothing, not enough supplies, and most importantly, not enough test kits and not enough diagnosis. All you can do is isolate yourself at home," said the former rights lawyer.

As of March 3, China's death toll has reached 2,944, with 67,217 confirmed cases in the province of Hubei, where Wuhan is, itself.

The last video Mr Chen posted was one of him interviewing a Wuhan native called A Ming, whose father had died, said the South China Morning Post.

Mr Ming had described how his father had probably contracted the virus during a visit to the Wuhan Union Hospital at the beginning of January for a health checkup. There were no safety precautions in place at the time.

When contacted by CNN, both the Wuhan and Qingdao city police said they had no information about Mr Chen.

Mr Chen's friend, who was given rights to take over his Twitter account should he disappear, told the paper: "We're worried for his physical safety but also worried that while he's missing he might get infected by the virus."

To counter the rising threat to media freedom, the OFP Coalition was established during a meeting of the International Media Council at the World Economic Forum in March last year.

The Straits Times joined the alliance in May.

Here are nine other cases mentioned in last month's list, in no particular order:

Pham Doan Trang, Vietnam

While moving between safe houses, Ms Trang has continued critical reporting on the environment, freedom of religion and online civil society. PHOTO: PHAM DOAN TRANG/FACEBOOK

The co-founder of The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa news publications Phan Doan Trang has been in hiding since August 2018, after Ho Chi Minh City police brutally beat her and confiscated her national ID card. They had also subjected to her to silencing measures including interrogation, monitoring and shutting off her Internet access and electricity. A colleague reports that Ms Trang has not fully recuperated and her health has deteriorated.

Roohollah Zam, Iran

The founder of anti-government Amad News Roohollah Zam was arrested in October by intelligence agents of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps. He is accused of working with French, Israeli and US intelligence agencies, and faces 17 charges, including espionage and spreading false news, although the government has made his platforms almost completely inaccessible for more than two years. In February, trial sessions were held in his case.

Daler Sharifov, Tajikistan

Daler Sharifov was ordered to two months of pretrial detention since police raided the independent reporter's home on Jan 28 and, days later, issued a statement announcing charges of inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred. CPJ calls this "a clear attempt to silence ahead of elections one of the few media critics that remain." A guilty verdict could mean up to five years in prison.

Agnès Ndirubusa and Iwacu team, Burundi

Christine Kamkazi (left) and Agnès Ndirubusa are part of four journalists who have been convicted of attempting to undermine state security. PHOTO: IWACU MEDIA

Following their October arrest, a Burundi court convicted four journalists on Jan 30 of attempting to undermine state security, fined them each US$530, and sentenced them to two years and six months in prison. The four had been covering clashes in the country's Bubanza Province and submitted their appeal on Feb 21.

Patrícia Campos Mello, Brazil

A reporter for Brazil's largest daily n ewspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, Patrícia Campos Mello experiences ongoing harassment online in retaliation for her reporting. Hundreds of Facebook and Twitter users, including the son of President Jair Bolsonaro, shared the allegations, many using sexual language. The allegations were later referenced by the president himself, whose 2018 presidential campaign backers distributed misinformation through WhatsApp to millions of Brazilians, Campos Mello reported.

Azimjon Askarov, Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz court upholds the life sentence of award-winning journalist Azimjon Askarov for documenting human rights abuses. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SON SHERZOD ASKAROV

After nearly 10 years in prison and his life sentence twice upheld, award-winning journalist Azimjon Askarov, 68, pursued a final appeal at the Supreme Court. The Feb 26 hearing was quickly adjourned until April 7. The ethnic Uzbek's reporting on corruption, abuse and human rights elicited trumped-up charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer.

Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia

Jamal Khashoggi was visiting the consulate to obtain divorce papers on Oct 2, 2018, so that he could marry his then fiancee, when a Saudi hit squad subdued and dismembered him. PHOTO: AFP

Feb 14 marked 500 days since Jamal Khashoggi's murder inside Istanbul's Saudi consulate. The Washington Post's columnist's fiance, Hadice, observed the date with an op-ed calling for justice. The Trump administration has so far ignored a law passed by Congress, and signed by the President, that mandated the release of an intelligence report about Mr Khashoggi's murder by Jan 19. This is in addition to ignoring a deadline to reply to Congress regarding the killing, as required under the US Global Magnitsky Act.

Aasif Sultan, India

Journalist Aasif Sultan has been imprisoned one year without due process for covering conflict. PHOTO: FREE AASIF SULTAN/FACEBOOK

Kashmir Narrator reporter Aasif Sultan has spent more than a year and half behind bars, since his 2018 arrest and charges months later of "complicity" in "harbouring known terrorists." He has been repeatedly interrogated and asked to reveal his sources for a cover story on a slain Kashmiri militant, whose killing by Indian security forces set off a wave of anti-government demonstrations in Kashmir in July 2016.

Mahmoud Hussein, Egypt

Mr Hussein's arrest came after Al Jazeera broadcast a documentary, "Al-Asaker" (The Soldiers), in November 2016. PHOTO: Al JAZEERA

Mahmoud Hussein, a journalist working with Al Jazeera, has spent more than 1,000 days in a pretrial detention in Cairo. Last May, an Egyptian court ordered his release, but authorities have opened a new investigation and returned him to prison. Mr Hussein's detention has been repeatedly renewed every 45 days, with anti-state charges stemming from a 2016 documentary about conscription in Egypt.

This is the 13th list released by the OFP Coalition. The coalition's other members include the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, The Boston Globe, Buzzfeed, Huff Post (formerly The Huffington Post), Insider Inc, Quartz, Time, Voice of America, The Washington Post, Wired and Yahoo News.

European members include Agencia EFE, CNN Money Switzerland, Corriere Della Sera, De Standaard, Deutsche Welle, Euractiv, Le Temps, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Republik, Reuters and Suddeutsche Zeitung.

From Asia, The Financial Times, India Today, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Asia have joined the network together with The Straits Times, while those from the rest of the Americas are AmericaEconomia, Estadao, Office of Cuba Broadcasting and TV Azteca.

Members of the public can join the conversation using the hashtag #OneFreePress and follow developments on Twitter @OneFreePress. To see the "10 Most Urgent" list every month, readers can visit this website or @OneFreePress on Twitter.

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