US lawmaker seeks inquiry into disappearance of Chinese journalists

A pro-democracy activist holds a placard of missing citizen journalist Fang Bin in Hong Kong on Feb 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A US congressman is calling on the State Department to urge China to investigate the disappearance of three Chinese citizen journalists who sought to expose the impact of the coronavirus on the Chinese city of Wuhan.

In a letter dated Tuesday (March 31), Republican Representative Jim Banks asked the US government to seek a probe into the fates of Mr Fang Bin, Mr Chen Qiushi and Mr Li Zehua.

According to media reports, they went missing after taking videos and publishing them online including images of overwhelmed hospitals and corpses piled in a minibus.

"All three of these men understood the personal risk associated with independently reporting on coronavirus in China, but they did it anyway," Mr Banks wrote, alleging that the Chinese government "imprisoned them - or worse."

The Chinese Embassy and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While the State Department is under no obligation to follow through on Mr Banks' request, the Trump administration has put in place a number of measures cracking down against China that were first proposed by hardliners in Congress.

The virus, which has become a global pandemic, first emerged in Wuhan in late December, sickening tens of thousands and upending life in the industrial city of 11 million people in central China.

China's censorship policies came under scrutiny since the virus outbreak amid allegations from online critics and local media that they potentially obscured the seriousness of the outbreak in its early stages.

Mr Banks also asked the State Department to open its own probe through diplomatic channels into the journalists' disappearance and ban those responsible for their mistreatment from entering the United States.

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