The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the Chinese authorities’ decision to ban reporting on the death of an activist in detention as a severe violation of media freedoms on a story of critical public interest.
Cao Shunli, 52, died from organ failure on March 14 in 309 Military Hospital in Beijing, after being transferred from Chaoyang District Detention Centre on February 16. Cao went missing at Beijing airport on September 14, 2013, as she was en route to Switzerland to attend a training session on UN human rights mechanisms. At the time, the UN Human Rights Council was preparing to review China’s human rights record over the previous four years under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. In October 2013, Cao was formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”.
Amnesty International has reported that Cao was prevented from receiving medical treatment even though she had serious health problems, including tuberculosis and liver disease. Cao’s lawyer Wang Yu said authorities at the Chaoyang District Detention Centre took away the medications she brought with her for pre-existing conditions and refused her medical treatment.
Cao’s family said she was denied medical parole until it was too late. A spokesperson for the Chinese authorities said that Cao had received “proactive, conscientious treatment and her legal rights were protected”.
Chinese and international bodies, including the US State Department, have also raised concerns about the circumstances surrounding Cao’s death.
A mainland Chinese journalist said: “We definitely could not report Cao’s case on the first day. Because of her background and the suspicions that she died due to lack of proper medical treatment, her case has become an international issue.”
Cao held a master of law from Beijing University and devoted her life to advocating for a just society in China. As a result, she was sentenced twice to administrative detention, also known as “labour re-education”. She also participated in the drafting of China’s National Human Rights Action Plan and had requested to attend the UPR meeting in Geneva, but was denied.
The IFJ said: “This is not the first time the media has been forbidden to report on deaths in detention. Unfortunately, the authorities continue to cover up suspect incidents when the media exercises their rights to report on cases of great public concern.”
The IFJ urges the United Nation Human Rights Council to call on China to investigate Cao’s death and make the report public. The IFJ also urges the All-China Journalists Association to take up their responsibilities to express their concerns and urge the authorities not to issue restrictive orders on future reporting.