HRC44 | ISHR calls for end to restrictions on free media, lawyers in China

China's COVID-related media restrictions are the most recent example of a systemic repression of freedom of opinion and expression - including of citizen journalists and human rights lawyers. In light of the 5th anniversary of the large-scale 'July 9' or '709' crackdown in China, rights groups urge the international community to do more to ensure such violations are not carried out with impunity.


Today, ISHR and influential organisations supporting lawyers and journalists lent their voices in support of the strong role both can play in ensuring rule of law in China, and in solidarity with the families and colleagues of detained and disappeared lawyers and other human rights defenders in the country.

In a dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, ISHR highlighted the way in which the Chinese authorities’ responses to COVID-19 have undermined commitments to free speech, in particular by independent media and human rights defenders.

Cases like Chen’s are not exceptions, limited to this public health crisis; they are examples of a deeply-rooted, systemic approach to repression of freedom of expression, the groups said. Lawyers have been subject to a range of repressive tactics, aiming at silencing criticism and limiting their ability to defend rights and hold the government accountable. ISHR outlined key cases in a brief explainer, released on 9 July in honor of the anniversay of the ‘709 crackdown’ – now also known as China Human Rights Lawyers’ Day.

Such dramatic limits on freedom of expression, and the ability of lawyers to challenge such limits, make clear the dire need for additional monitoring and reporting from outside – including from the UN human rights mechanisms.

‘The Special Rapporteur was joined by a nearly-unheard number of colleagues – over four dozen – in calling for Human Rights Council action to take ‘decisive measures’ to address the situation in China’, says Sarah M. Brooks, Asia Advocate at ISHR. ‘It is essential that this effort be taken forward by all governments who reaffirmed today their commitments to upholding freedom of expression’.

The statement was endorsed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, the Law Council of Australia, and Lawyers Rights Watch Canada.

Watch the statement here:

For more information, please contact Sarah M. Brooks at s.brooks[at] or @sarahmcneer


Statement at 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Item 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression


Thank you, Madame President.

ISHR delivers this statement on behalf of a group of NGOs dedicated to safeguarding lawyers and upholding free media.

Mr Special Rapporteur, thank you for your clear and unequivocal work to insist that freedom of expression rights are critical to ‘empowering individuals and communities, human development and democratic self-governance’ – and, more recently, to meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the elements of your report focuses on threats to journalism, including ‘disabling independent journalists’ and failing to release journalists subject to arbitrary and unlawful detention and, in times of pandemic, serious health risks. Both of these are deeply relevant to the work of human rights advocates and citizen journalists in China, such as Chen Qiushi and Huang Qi. You also specifically cite the Chinese government’s moves to silence and expel foreign journalists, such as reporters from The New York Times.

Your report makes clear the need for continuous monitoring and assessment of restrictions on free expression against benchmarks of legality, necessity and proportionality. This *would be* a role for Chinese lawyers, but they, too, have been silenced.

This week marked five years since the beginning of the so-called ‘709 crackdown’, a sweeping dragnet which targeted more than 300 lawyers and legal activists. Although most have been released – including Wang Quanzhang, who rejoined his family in April 2020 after being held some four years incommunicado – the repression continues. Lawyer Yu Wensheng was convicted in a secret trial in 2019 to four years’ prison – news his wife received last month, nearly a year later.

Rather than law enforcement stings, the Chinese authorities have evolved to use more subtle tactics to undermine the legal profession. These include sanctioning online and private speech by lawyers with disbarment and revocation of their licenses; harassment of family members and colleagues for publicly calling for justice; and restricting access to critical information held by law enforcement, to family and legal counsel.

They also stigmatize lawyers in media – that is, state-run media – outlets, calling them ‘opponents of China’, ‘radical activists’ and ‘black sheep’ and airing coerced confessions which discredit this important human rights work.

Mr Special Rapporteur, in light of limits to open and independent media in China, and targeting of lawyers who may seek to defend those criminalized for their speech, what steps would you recommend the international community, and specifically this Council, take to obtain credible, actionable information on the human rights situation in China, including Uyghur and Tibetan regions and Hong Kong?


Illustration: Hairless vs. Lawless, 2020, JZhang

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