Chinese journalist Chen Jieren was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Thursday under the oppressive Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) one-size-fits-all charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” because he dared to publish criticism of the Party and file investigative reports that undermined its credibility.
Chen was arrested on July 4, 2018, along with his (now-ex) wife and two brothers, ostensibly on suspicions of running an illegal business and organizing an extortion plot. His real offense was the crime of investigative journalism that revealed fraud and corruption among Communist Party officials in Hunan province, including a city-level Party secretary. The regime deleted his whistleblowing articles and wiped out his blog after he was arrested.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which immediately called for Chen’s release, noted that he was fired from two previous positions at Chinese state-run news outlets for “criticizing the government too much.” His later work was published on social media, including WeChat and Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service that fills in for the banned Twitter.
The court that sentenced Chen to 15 years in jail on Friday, plus a fine of almost a million dollars in U.S. currency, said that his writing “attacked and vilified the Communist Party and government” by spreading “false information and malicious speculation.” His brother Weiren was convicted of extortion, blackmail, and “picking quarrels” and sentenced to four years plus about $1,400 in fines.
The Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said Chen was not given a fair trial:
Chen and several of his family members and associates disappeared a few days after he disclosed on his social media channels alleged corruption by local CCP officials in late June-early July 2018. His detention was only confirmed on July 7. On July 16, 2018, Chenzhou City Supervisory Commission told Chen’s lawyers that Chen and his brother were under investigation by the Supervisory Commission and being held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). The brothers’ lawyers were denied visits during the RSDL period. On November 12, 2018, Chen Jieren was criminally detained and formally arrested on November 20.
In August 2018, Chinese state media launched a smear campaign, accusing Chen of various crimes and quoted police as saying that his online speech “sabotaged the reputation of the Party and the government and damaged the government’s credibility.” State media published Chen’s “confession” while he was incommunicado in a secret detention facility under RSDL.
CHRD feared Chen’s “heavy punishment” will send a “chilling signal to online independent commentators and citizen journalists,” who are censored by the CCP but not controlled as tightly as state media.
Chen was arrested long before the coronavirus pandemic began, but commentators such as the Irish Times saw his conviction and harsh sentence as part of the CCP’s effort to regain “full control over the online space following a mass outpouring of domestic anger at the party when news of the death of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang broke on social media.”
The Irish Times noted that at least a half-dozen other independent journalists have been arrested or simply banished in recent weeks, while foreign journalists have been exiled from Beijing for coronavirus coverage that angered the CCP.