Authorities in China have revoked the licence of human rights lawyer Ren Quanniu, who represented Chinese Christian activist Zhang Zhan in 2020. The news comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s central propaganda department has announced plans to step up regulation of the country’s citizen journalism.
Ren stands accused by the Henan Provincial Judicial Department of “violating rules” during a trial in November 2018 in which he defended a member of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China. A disbarment hearing was held on 29 January. In response to the accusations, Ren told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the accusations against him were "groundless”, adding, "Lawyers should be clearly aware that referencing the law and facts in court may be dangerous in the future."
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is disappointed, if not surprised, to learn of the disbarment of Ren Quanniu. We call on the authorities to end reprisals against human rights lawyers, including the practices of revoking or refusing to renew their licenses to practice.”
In a separate development, China's internet regulator has announced a crackdown on citizen journalism across the country, effectively banning anyone from posting information related to politics, economics, military, diplomacy and major events and emergencies online without a licence.
At a conference on 29 January, Zhuang Rongwen, vice director of the Central Propaganda Department and director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said that the “standardized management” of citizen journalism needed to be prioritised, including “punishments for offenders”.
Additionally, a Protestant pastor in Qingdao told media outlet Radio Free Asia that the authorities are not only concerned with news sharing, but also with religious content: "I have heard that they will comprehensively rectify citizen journalism, current affairs, politics, commentary, and also religious content."
The new measures follow the detention and disappearance of several citizen journalists who attempted to share information online about the coronavirus in 2020, including human rights defender Zhang Zhan.
Zhang’s imprisonment has drawn widespread international concern and condemnation. On 20 January, members of the Media Freedom Coalition raised concerns about her imprisonment and “the ongoing efforts by Chinese authorities to curtail media freedom.” The Coalition urged the Chinese authorities to immediately release Ms Zhang and “all those detained in connection with their reporting”. The United Nations human rights office has also called for Zhang’s release and called it “an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID19.”
Mervyn Thomas added: “Once again CSW calls on the Chinese Communist Party to respect the right to freedom of expression, and to release Zhang Zhan and all those detained in connection with their peaceful activities as citizen journalists. We remain deeply concerned by increasing restrictions on freedom of expression online, including limitations on sharing religious content. The Chinese authorities should protect and promote the right to freedom of information and expression in line with Article 19 of the ICCPR.”