The ruling Chinese Communist Party has targeted thousands of people for speaking out about the coronavirus epidemic in the country since it began in late December in the central city of Wuhan, an overseas-based rights group has said.
“Human rights violations surged in China since the Chinese government began implementing draconian measures in response to COVID-19,” the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a report this week.
“These include deleting critical information online, censoring the media, punishing whistleblowing doctors, detaining and disappearing independent journalists and government critics, and kicking out foreign reporters,” it said.
Since state news agency Xinhua first reported that President Xi Jinping would lead “a people’s war” on the epidemic on Jan. 20, police had handled 5,111 cases of “fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information,” according to a Feb. 21 statement from the ministry of public security.
CHRD said it has documented 897 cases between Jan. 1 and March 26 involving Chinese internet users penalized by police for their online speech or info-sharing about the coronavirus epidemic, based on official information in the public domain.
The cases were spread across almost every province, region and municipality in China, CHRD said, adding that 467 people were sanctioned in February alone.
“The punishments handed out by police fall largely into several types: administrative detention, criminal detention, enforced disappearance, fines, warnings/interrogations, forced confessions and ‘educational reprimand’,” the CHRD report said.
Some 18.5 percent of people were placed in administrative detention, which can be handed down to a maximum of 15 days without trial, while 17.8 received an “education reprimand,” it said.
Charges used to question, detain and arrest people included “rumor-mongering,” “fabricating false information,” “sowing panic,” “disturbing public order,” and “breach of privacy.”
Cases in which people were accused of “spreading misinformation” or “disrupting public order” accounted for more than 96 percent of cases, the group said.
“Under the guise of fighting the novel coronavirus, authorities in China have escalated suppression online by blocking independent reporting, information sharing, and critical comments on government responses.”CHRD said.