The Fate of Bitter Winter’s 45 Arrested Reporters

Great media coverage and two petitions to free them is an occasion to publicly share some details on their capture, detention and present state. 

Marco Respinti

Bitter Winter started its publication in May 2018, and by August, it was already targeted by the CCP as a “foreign hostile website” just for speaking the truth about the thousands and thousands of people that the regime incarcerates, indoctrinates, harasses, tortures and even kills only because they are believers or ethnic minorities. At the same time the CCP designated us an “enemy,” it started a “re-education” campaign toward Bitter Winter, based on “none dare to speak the truth” intimidation in the guise of Chairman Mao’s classical ideological strategy of “punish one, teach a hundred.” (Even if some doubt that the “Great Helmsman” ever pronounced a sentence like that, he for sure implemented it many times in practice, spectacularly during the Cultural Revolution). But Xi Jinping wants to rival Mao in greatness and instead of punishing one has hit 45.

This is the number of Bitter Winter’s reporters and contributors that the CPP has arrested from August to December 2018, (actually, some early arrests took place even in July) for filming incidents of or gathering news about the CCP’s persecution of religious freedom and violation of human rights in Mainland China. Reporters were usually detained and interrogated charged with “divulging state secrets” or “involvement in infiltration by foreign forces.” Some reporters have been sent to “legal education centers” to undergo mandatory indoctrination, while others have been tortured and abused.

Petitioning internationally for justice and freedom

The startling news about the arrests hit the media internationally, producing ample coverage. Later, more than a dozen NGOs, plus individuals representing organizations, decided to question the Chinese regime publicly and signed a respectful, nonetheless firm petition put forward by the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, based in Paris and whose Steering Committee is chaired by Mr. Eric Roux, the president of the Union of the Churches of Scientology of France. The petition was sent on January 21, to Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion; Mrs. Federica Mogherini,  High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Mrs. Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe; Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights; Mr. Jan Figel,  EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief; Mr. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mrs. Mairead McGuiness, vice president of the European Parliament (EP) in charge of Implementation of Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; members of the European Parliament Denis De Jong and Peter Van Dalen, both co-chairs of the EP Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

“We are,” the petition reads, “a truly multi-faith group, representing a high degree of diversity. While there is very little we agree on theologically, or politically, we all agree on the importance of religious freedom for all faiths and none. It strengthens cultures and provides the foundation for stable democracies and their components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. As such, it is also the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon, pre-emptively undermining religious extremism.” The text continues, “[t]here is one enemy totalitarian regimes fear more than any else: a free press. They know they should use all means to prevent their wrongdoings from being exposed internationally by free media”. For the reasons the signers “[…] call on democratic governmental authorities, international organizations, and media to ask China to immediately release the arbitrarily detained Bitter Winter reporters, and to comply with the international obligations it has freely subscribed about human rights and freedom of the media.”

A letter to Xi Jinping

The concern for our arrested reporters found its way also in the text of another letter, sent to the president of People’s Republic of China and Secretary general of the CCP, Mr. Xi Jinping, calling for the respect of all religions and for the protection of freedom of belief in the People’s Republic of China. The initiative of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief, based in Rome, Italy, whose Board of Directors is chaired by human rights lawyer Mr. Alessandro A. Amicarelli, was launched as early as October 9, 2018, and signed by ten NGOs.

“Newspaper reporters and culture advocates who are bringing such appalling reality to light,” it reads, “are subject to serious intimidation, which happened for instance mid July 2018 with some journalists and informers of the magazine Bitter Winter […] as the outcome of a police operation specifically organized to silence this media, ‘guilty’ of openly denouncing the human rights violations […]. ”After all, “[a]s history teaches, the violent suppression of religions only represents the genesis of additional, dramatic social disturbance, turmoil and conflicts,” and this is why “[w]e officially hope, wish and ask that this intolerance and persecution cease immediately, and that the rule of law and implementation of the Constitution is fully restored in the People’s Republic of China, [and] that every citizen and individual may be free to practice their own religion, or not to practice any, without prohibitions or obligations.” The signers are “[…] willing to provide advice and guidance along with practical solutions inspired by International Human Rights Law provisions and based on the best practices achieved in this field, in order to remedy to the misunderstandings that may have caused the growth of discrimination and prejudice and violence in the People’s Republic of China.”

How we get and verify news

The fact that 45 reporters were arrested in less than five months is significant enough to completely alter all statistics related to freedom of press and expression. This is why, understandably, the media which covered the news of the arrests often asked us how we had been able to know and verify it. Not that they doubted it, but they genuinely wondered how that could be possible, due to the high and sophisticated level of control exerted by the regime in China, especially in some regions and provinces where life is literally suffocated and society repressed in all its basic movements.

At this point, it is appropriate to take stock of the situation, first, explaining to all our readers the mechanism of how news comes to us from China; secondly, to update the general public on the fate of our 45 arrested reporters.

As to the first point, it is important to repeat how Bitter Winter operates. The magazine was started by CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Turin, Italy, whose founder and managing editor is internationally famed Italian sociologist of religions, Prof. Massimo Introvigne. The Center has thirty years of experience in dealing with religious minorities, particularly new religious movements, around the world, and thus counts on an extensive network of contacts with religious communities both in China and in the Chinese diaspora. CESNUR than started Bitter Winter, whose Editor-in-Chief is Prof. Introvigne, by using this network and creating a safe (but not infallible) system for smuggling out of China news, photographs, and videos. We understand that only in a few cases our reporters have professional training in journalism, most are amateurs. In almost all cases, we do not know their real names, only pseudonyms. We verify that their news and other materials are reliable in two ways. First, most reporters are introduced to us by religious communities we know. Second, when we doubt the veracity of some news, we double-check with relevant communities in the diaspora. For instance, news about Xinjiang is often double-checked with the World Uyghur Congress and other Uyghur organizations in the US and Europe. Some pieces of news are never published.

The news about the arrests of our reporters came in the same way as our other news. Even if we knew the real names of those arrested, we would not publish them for security reasons, as this would both help to prosecute them and put others who work closely with them at risk. We understand that this is different from how other organizations operate, but this is precisely why we can publish exclusive videos and pictures that nobody would give us by signing with a real name. The quality of the images speaks for itself.

Some are still missing

As for the second point – the fate of our arrested reporters – we are able now (after having checked and double-checked information) to publicly share some details on their capture, detention and present state.

Twenty-two people were arrested in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and four of them have been released. The specific situations of the other 18 people are unknown, and even the whereabouts of some of them are unclear.

Three were arrested in Zhejiang Province, in eastern China. One of them was released after undergoing mandatory indoctrination, one of them was taken to a hotel to undergo mandatory indoctrination, the duration of which is unclear, and one was released after 13 days of detention.

Four people were arrested in the southeastern province of Fujian. One of them was released after being detained for 33 days; another one was freed after a month at a detention center. The other two underwent mandatory indoctrination in a hotel. They were classified as “first-level” suspects, to whom family visits are forbidden. They are still in custody, and we have reports that one of them suffered torture. We believe they are regarded as particularly dangerous because they sent us materials about Catholic priests critical about the Vatican-China Deal of 2018.

Four people were arrested in Shanxi Province, located in the North China region. One of them was arrested on “suspicion of illegally providing state secrets overseas” because he exposed a CCP document; he was held in a local county detention center. Another was released on bail and is currently under surveillance. A third was arrested and taken to a city’s detention center, and his present situation is unknown. The fourth has been released.

Twelve people were arrested in the central province of Henan for taking photos and footages of cross demolitions, and they’ve been released. The police did not find evidence they had sent materials to Bitter Winter.

There may be other cases we are not aware of.

As for being formally charged, we do not have detailed information about those in detention. The information we have received just indicated, as previously said, that some reporters were interrogated on the charge of “involvement in infiltration by foreign forces,” “subversion of state power,” or “divulging state secrets.” But maybe because the evidence was not sufficient, so far, we have not heard of anyone being publicly prosecuted.

According to one reporter who has been released, if the materials they had gathered have not been published, then they would be acquitted on the charges of “involvement in infiltration by foreign forces” and “subversion of state power.” But since the news had been published, then they will most likely be charged and convicted. In case public conviction decisions follow, which would probably happen in the next few months, we may decide to publish them, after checking that this would not affect the security of other persons in China. Stay tuned.