ASIA: CHINESE DISSIDENTS BARRED FROM MEETING WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA; CALLS
FOR AUNG SAN SUU KYI'S RELEASE
During U.S. President Barack Obama's first visit to Asia as president this
month, Human Rights Watch urged him to call on the 10-member Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resolve issues of impunity and major
restraints on freedom of expression throughout the region. As well, IFEX
members called on the President to press for the release of imprisoned
Chinese journalists and writers on his first official visit to the People's
Republic of China.
Obama met with ASEAN leaders on 15 November, the day after the annual
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Singapore.
Human Rights Watch asked the President to communicate the importance to
ASEAN leaders of joining forces to challenge Burma and call for the release
of all political prisoners, including the democracy leader Aung San Suu
Kyi, as well as for an inclusive political process ahead of the 2010
The President personally asked Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein to
free Suu Kyi and other political prisoners while in Singapore, says Mizzima
News. But a post-summit statement by ASEAN did not call for the Burmese
democracy leader's release, allegedly as a result of pressure from the
Human Rights Watch also called on Obama to encourage Vietnam to improve its
human rights policies and to begin by releasing the hundreds of peaceful
government critics, independent church activists, bloggers and democracy
advocates currently imprisoned on baseless national security charges simply
for expressing dissent.
As well, Human Rights Watch appealed to Obama to directly challenge
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's authoritarian rule, as he and other
ruling party officials use violence, threats, and the country's notoriously
corrupt judiciary to eliminate dissent by imprisoning opposition party
members, journalists, land rights activists and other government critics.
Elsewhere in the region, Malaysia also takes advantage of overbroad
national security laws. Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore use criminal
defamation laws to control free speech and Thailand makes arbitrary use of
the "lese majeste" law and the Computer Crimes Act.
In China, IFEX members asked that human rights not be ignored in the midst
of discussions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and trade tariffs.
Chinese authorities counted on Obama not to raise human rights, while
society activists, lawyers, and peaceful critics - the people Obama
normally allies himself with - hoped he would, said Human Rights Watch.
Obama himself is a writer and constitutional lawyer.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) reports that police clamped down on
dissidents across the country, with arbitrary detention and intimidation
tactics, so that critics would not be able to attempt to meet Obama or
foreign journalists. Others were strictly warned not to travel to Shanghai
and Beijing during the President's visit.
Obama tried to have a candid discussion with Chinese students in Shanghai
at a meeting of about 500 students. According to the International Press
Institute (IPI), Obama did respond to a question related to Internet
censorship. "I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm
a big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said. However, he also added, "I
recognise that different countries have different traditions."
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports that Chinese
authorities forbade questions to Obama on the Internet, and ordered media
outlets to delete news about questions raised at the student forum. Despite
the ban, Obama responded to a question about Twitter that he got through
the Internet: "I should be honest, as President of the United States, there
are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I
wouldn't have to listen to people criticising me all the time." According
to news reports, he added, "Because in the United States, information is
free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all
kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy
stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear
opinions that I don't want to hear."
In a letter to Obama, the PEN American Center called on the President to
intervene on behalf of more than 40 detained Chinese writers. IFEX members
highlighted several cases. Hu Jia, a freelance reporter and blogger and a
civil rights, environmental and AIDS activist, is serving a
three-and-a-half-year sentence for "inciting subversion." Liu Xiaobo, a
renowned writer, intellectual and literary critic, who has been detained
since December 2008, is facing 15 years in prison. Other detained writers
mentioned: Shi Tao, imprisoned for allegedly "leaking state secrets;" and
Du Daobin, Yang Tongyan and Zhang Jianhong, all serving long prison
PEN said: "Finding writers in prison is a warning sign not only of the
state of fundamental liberties in a country but also of the health,
character, and vitality of the ideas in play and of the ability of citizens
to act on these ideas."
IPI called on Obama to focus on the link between press freedom and elements
of sustainability, poverty and governance, citing the Chinese famine of
1958-1961 in which 23 to 30 million people died. The absence of a free and
independent press meant the central government believed its economic
policies were working; in reality, millions were starving.
Similarly, the tragic outcome of the 2008 earthquake that struck China's
Sichuan province, killing more than 80,000 and rendering five million
homeless, was made worse because of poor infrastructure which investigative
journalism might have exposed, reports IPI.
Activists Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi are facing charges of subversion for
investigating the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 earthquake and
posting the information they had gathered online, report IFEX members.
Huang Qi remains in prison, along with at least 50 bloggers and 30
journalists throughout China.
PEN American Center concluded: "We do not write to suggest how or when you
should raise these cases or what you should say. We only ask that you not
be persuaded by those who would argue that pressing for the release of
writers is somehow counterproductive or inappropriate to the occasion."
Related stories on IFEX.org:
- PEN calls on President Obama to stand up for free expression in China:
More on the web:
- Obama should raise human rights in China (Human Rights Watch):
- Obama should press Asian leaders on rights (Human Rights Watch):
- IPI calls on U.S. President to raise press freedom concerns during trip
- United States President touches upon human rights concerns during
official visit to China (IPI):
- China enforces new restrictions as Obama speaks out (IFJ):
- U.S.-ASEAN meet fails to call for Suu Kyi's release (Mizzima News):