Gulchehra Hoja is one of the most well-known Uyghur journalists,having been a star of a children’s program in the 1990s and then later working for Xinjiang TV. Since moving to the USA about 18 years ago, she has worked at Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, which is one of the only outlets providing independent news to residents of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang).
Independent reporting in Xinjiang is extremely difficult, and foreign reporters face numerous restrictions and harassment by the authorities. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s annual report for working conditions in China from 2017, 73% of foreign correspondents who took the FCCC’s survey who traveled to Xinjiang in 2017 were told by officials and security agents that reporting was prohibited or estricted, compared with 42% in 2016.
Following the news of Gulchehra Hoja’s family, it was reported by the Washington Post on February 28, 2018 that three other journalists at Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service faced the same situation, with their family members in Xinjiang detained in apparent retaliation for their relatives’ overseas journalism.
Gulchehra Hoja’s parents were also among her detained relatives. They were released in March 2018 but remain under surveillance. Gulchehra Hoja’s aunt, Hankezi Zikeli, is detained in a “transformation-through-education” centrer in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and is believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown. She is one of 25 relatives of Gulchehra Hoja who have been detained since January 2018. Without any access to a lawyer, there are grave fears that they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
While Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have long suffered violations of their rights to freedom of religion and association and other human rights, over the past year or more, authorities have engaged in an unprecedented crackdown targeting them. Techniques of repression include the widespread use of arbitrary detention, technological surveillance, heavily armed street patrols, security checkpoints and an array of intrusive policies violating human rights.
Testimonies collected by Amnesty International, media reports as well as information gathered by Amnesty International, indicate that in the spring of 2017, authorities throughout the region began detaining Uyghurs en masse, and started sending them to administrative detention facilities or sentencing them to long prison terms. This crackdown has not only been applied to Uyghurs, but to other predominantly Muslim ethnicities, such as Kazakhs, and Kyrgyzs.