Foreign reporters being blocked in Xinjiang

AFP
KASHGAR, China
Fri, Jun 28, 2019

The three men were so busy staging a fake traffic accident they failed to notice the very people they were trying to block: foreign journalists heading toward one of China’s notorious internment camps.

A small truck slowly inched toward a vehicle parked on the road before stopping — just short of contact — as the reporters drove past the scene.

The “accident” later drew a crowd of onlookers as a line of trucks lined up down the highway. Police halted traffic, blocking the road leading toward the camp.

Though a botched attempt, the incident illustrates the great lengths Chinese authorities go to obstruct journalists from covering topics deemed sensitive in Xinjiang, where large numbers of mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up into re-education camps.

On a six-day trip to Xinjiang, Agence France-Presse (AFP) was able to document three of them — razor-wired complexes with imposing block buildings.

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One was within walking distance of farmland, while another was clearly visible from nearby dwellings. One center was just around the corner from a water park.

After initially denying their existence, the Chinese government has gone on a public relations blitz to counter the global outcry against what Beijing calls “vocational education centers” — and defends them as necessary to battle religious extremism.

Since October last year, the Xinjiang government has also organized camp tours for diplomats and media outlets, but it has made independent reporting in the region extremely challenging, with journalists almost constantly followed by plainclothes officials, making it difficult to talk to locals without putting them at risk.

Roadblocks and construction work, which suddenly materialize when reporters near re-education camps, are also a constant headache.

When AFP reporters tried to approach one internment camp in Hotan, roads were roped off within seconds after an unmarked vehicle that had been following them sped ahead.

In the end, the only option was to photograph the camp — a fenced off compound surrounded by a swath of sand and desert scrub — from afar.

The security clampdown in Xinjiang, where authorities have implemented unprecedented levels of surveillance, has also made it impossible to move freely around the region.

Police checkpoints at city borders prevented AFP reporters from traveling outside regional hubs without alerting local propaganda officials.

In some cases, whole cities were closed off.

While driving to Artux, where a mosque is believed to have been destroyed, AFP reporters were forced to turn around by police at a checkpoint, who said the road was closed for driving tests — all day for the next five days.

“Please understand our work,” the police officer said.

At the same checkpoint, two women claiming to be tourists also appeared.

For the next hour, they followed AFP reporters in a dark purple van because they were “lost.”

Even when AFP reporters went past the fake traffic accident to take pictures of a camp from a nearby village, the “tourists” parked close by.

A man who said he was a village security guard later escorted the journalists out. He left the “tourists” alone.

Access to places of religious worship appears tightly controlled.

On the morning of Eid al-Fitr, when Muslims around the world celebrate the end of Ramadan, the enormous square outside of the main mosque in Kashgar was cordoned off.

Reporters were forced into a “media interview area” on the outer edges of the square as worshipers filed into Idkah Mosque — whereas in previous years devotees gathered in crowds outside, squeezing together to unroll their prayer rugs.

At a group interview organized by propaganda officials, the mosque’s imam said there had not been any “big changes” in prayer attendance compared with five years ago.

“Now that you’ve come to Xinjiang, you can see there are millions of Uighurs that are all living really well,” Juma Maimaiti said through an interpreter.

Other foreign news organizations have faced similar challenges while visiting the region.

In a report released by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) in January, journalists from a variety of outlets said that they were followed, physically blocked from areas or even denied hotel rooms.

Nathan VanderKlippe, a reporter at the Canadian paper Globe and Mail, said that he was threatened with arrest and had “armed police approach my vehicle with shields raised.”

“A police officer seized my camera and deleted pictures without my consent,” he told the FCCC, which published his account.

In a piece published earlier this month, Daily Telegraph correspondent Sophia Yan said that she and her colleagues had to travel nearly 80km on foot, as “nameless voices over the radio instructed taxi drivers to turn around.”

While AFP reporters found local authorities polite albeit unyielding — perhaps a reaction to the negative press resulting from police aggression — there were moments on the trip where it became unnervingly clear how closely they were being tracked.

In Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road City with a majority Uighur population, someone broke into an AFP journalist’s hotel room after he stepped outside for a few minutes.

Upon returning, he found the door open and one of his bags had been moved.

Nothing was taken, but the message was clear: We are watching you.

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