• Log In

  • Incident Reports | 1 April, 2009 (08:46)

    French Reporter Detained Covering Sichuan Quake Aftermath

    LOCATION: Dujiangyan, Minjiang commune, on a public road
    TYPE OF INCIDENT: Intimidation of source, reporter detained
    TOPIC: One-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake
    NATIONALITY/ORGANIZATION: French print/radio

    “They said I was detained because I was in a ‘forbidden area,’ though it is a tourist spot, with propaganda banners welcoming ‘friends from all over the world’ and strongly promoting ‘tourism, for the people, by the people.’ The local PSB chief explained ‘if a Chinese journalist went to Mr. Sarkozy’s office, he should register.’”


    DESCRIPTION: I went to the home of a family that lost their daughter in the earthquake when her school collapsed. The couple, the driver and I drove about one kilometer to the location where their village will be rebuilt. On the way we stopped to look at a public propaganda billboard showing the estate project. A speeding, unmarked car slammed on its breaks and skid in front of our car, blocking our way. It was followed by a police car and a second unmarked car. Three plainclothes officials and two police officers came out and surrounded us. A plainclothes officer asked for everyone’s ID. He then asked me to register by filling in a detailed form.

    “I actually had a positive impression about the relocation and allowance system, but after the detention, I started to have doubts, and had a very bad overall impression. If they had let me do my job and hadn’t harassed my sources, I would probably have written a much more positive article.”

    I asked who he was, he said he was with ‘Gongan,’ the Public Security Bureau . When I asked why I should register, he said “in your country if police ask you to register, you have to register,” without giving reasons for the arrest. I asked if it was illegal to be here, he said no. I asked if I did anything illegal, he said he stopped me for my ‘safety’, stating that it was a dangerous place after the quake. The two other plainclothes officers approached and introduced themselves as the heads of the local PSB. It was 16.45 and they had a very strong smell of alcohol. They behaved agressively. They took the couple and shouted at them, then released them. They then saw that I have a journalist visa, and took the driver and me to a nearby police station. After several phone calls and cups of tea, they asked for my journalist card. I had left it at the hotel. After further other phone calls, they said could release me if I gave the number of my press card. I gave it to them. After further calls, they said that the Waiban foreign affairs officials were coming, and we had to wait for them. I asked why, they replied because they couldn’t speak english (we were speaking fluently in chinese for 90 minutes, and were even writing inchinese.) Three different people interrogated me about my conversation with the couple and how I knew them. Meanwhile, they interrogated my driver in a separate room. Three young officials arrived later on, and asked me again the same questions. They said I was detained because I was in a “forbidden area,” though it is a tourist spot, with propaganda banners welcoming ‘friends from all over the world’ and strongly promoting “tourism, for the people, by the people.” The local PSB chief explained “if a Chinese journalist went to Mr. Sarkozy’s office, he should register.” After a third interrogation session by polite Waiban officials and more phone calls and tea, they had me sign a detailed form in Chinese. It even stated parts of my conversation with the couple that I hadn’t mention to them. Since there was nothing in the form against the couple, the driver or me, I signed it. The Waiban official head then offered me to provide me with “comprehensive and official” written material about relocation and allowances in the area, and to come back anytime I want to conduct interviews, provided I register with them and follow their guidance. Finally, the Waiban and Gongan cars escorted our car to the next city. On the way, the driver stopped at the couple’s house to retrieve a teacup he had forgotten. The PSB officer first stopped him, then escorted him inside. The driver later told me they barred him from talking with the couple. A text message later sent to the couple remain unanswered. The whole detention lasted about 3.5 hours. Comments: Conducting my reporting prior to the incident. I actually had a positive impression about the relocation and allowance system: the couple told me that although they were distressed by the earthquake, they were well compensated, and the government system of relief was relatively transparent and efficient. Other new housing estates I saw were well constucted, other people interviewed were generally satisfied with the allowances and relocations. But after the detention, I started to have doubts, and had a very bad overall impression. If they had let me do my job and hadn’t harassed my sources, I would probably have written a much more positive article. Also, during my detention, several refugees came to the police station to sort out their problems (disputes, administrative duties etc.) Although some of their issues seemed urgent, the police didn’t give them priority. My detention was also a waste of personnel resources and time that could have been used for the sake of the local people. The Foreign Affaris officials were aware of the regulations and used them against me. I carried only my passport and journalist visa, but didn’t carry my press card.