IFJ Blog: Muzzling memories of Tiananmen

By Serenade Woo
IFJ China Press Freedom Project Manager

Discussion of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989, has been taboo in China for a quarter of a century, but repression of free speech has been worse this year than previously in the lead-up to tomorrow’s 25th anniversary.

The Chinese authorities have been cracking down since early April to prevent journalists from exercising their duty to report. At least seven media personnel working for Hong Kong and overseas media outlets have been detained, charged or sentenced. They are Gao Yu, Yao Wentian (also known as Yiu Man-tin), Xin Jian, Vivian Wu, Xiang Nanfu, Wai Zhongsiao and Wang Jianmin. The charges laid against them include “publishing state secrets”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, “smuggling ordinary goods” and “illegally operating a publication”, but the police have not produced any evidence to show that they breached any law.

Other journalists have encountered difficulties in conducting interviews with Chinese citizens on the topic of June 4. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a number of journalists have complained that police unreasonably prevented them from carrying out their professional responsibilities. In addition, the police have threatened that their press cards might be forfeited and their working visas might be cancelled if they continued to report on the anniversary of the massacre.

In addition, many potential interviewees were forced to vacate their apartments, including Ding Zilin, a prominent representative of the Tiananmen Square Mothers group of families bereaved by the massacre. Some were warned by police not to accept any interviews with overseas media. Pu Zhiqiang, a participant in the 1989 Movement and now a human rights lawyer, was detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he attended a private gathering in early May to commemorate the massacre. Many activists and scholars with no connection to June 4 have received similar treatment.

Not a word relating to the June 4 incident is allowed to be published in the Chinese media and no-one has been able to express their opinion in public for 25 years. This year, the tension has escalated. The Beijing local government claimed that it would mobilize 100,000 people to act as government informers and 850,000 volunteers to form a “safety network” to prevent anything happening in Beijing tomorrow.

In Hong Kong, the media is still able to report on topics related to June 4. However two civil society groups with political leanings towards the Chinese government and the local Hong Kong government have vocally expressed views that are in line with the stance of the Central government. The groups also emphasized that they have the right to speak. This is the first time that a civil society organization in Hong Kong has argued that the 1989 crackdown was necessary and justified.