A friend of Chen Qiushi, who reported on Hong Kong democracy protests and COVID-19 before going missing February 6, has urged the world to not forget the citizen journalist's plight.
Chen had been reporting on the epidemic from Wuhan, and uploading videos to YouTube and Twitter, which are banned in China.
The friend told VOA no one knows where Chen is. On Twitter, Chen's friend tweeted that the journalist and lawyer was likely being held under "residential surveillance."
"Chen Qiushi has been out of contact for 86 days after covering coronavirus in Wuhan. Please save him!" the friend posted on Chen's Twitter account on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
The post included a picture of Chen and a "prayer for citizen journalists" in Chinese that read, "Knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free."
At least six citizen journalists and activists have been detained, gone missing or been held in "enforced quarantine" in recent months.
In an interview with VOA, Cedric Alviani, East Asia bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, urged citizen journalists to not give up their efforts to reveal information China is trying to hide.
"After the pandemic, no one in the world can say that the problem of censorship in China only concerns Chinese citizens," Alviani said.
China ranks 177 out of 180 countries in the media watchdog's 2020 Press Freedom Index, where 1 is the most free.
Chen previously told VOA that his social media account was set up "outside the firewall" and trusted friends would manage it if anything happened to him.
The journalist's friend, who spoke with VOA and who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, said the theme of this year's World Press Freedom Day — "Journalism Without Fear or Favor" — described Chen perfectly.
Chen Qiushi: Lawyer, activist, journalist
Chen, a 34-year-old lawyer, activist and popular citizen journalist from China, became widely known globally for providing firsthand coverage of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in 2019.
He posted videos on his then Weibo account about the protests, and he criticized the government for characterizing protesters as rioters. His Weibo account had 740,000 followers before authorities deleted it.
The journalist told VOA in November 2019 that the account and his WeChat were deleted when he returned from Hong Kong. A month earlier, another of his social media accounts was deleted after the journalist returned from covering flood damage in Jiangxi province, Chen said.
When COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, Chen caught a train into the city on January 24, before a strict lockdown was enforced.
For the next two weeks he posted videos online of his visits to overrun hospitals, funeral homes, and the deserted Huanan Seafood Market where China said early cases of the virus were traced.
"I'm a citizen reporter, this is my responsibility," he said in his first video from Wuhan, "What kind of reporter are you if you don't rush over to Ground Zero?"
While in Wuhan, Chen mentioned multiple times between January 21 and January 30 that the Chinese state police were on him and that he had received warnings. "I'm ready to be taken away at any time," he said in one video.
On February 6, after visiting a newly built hospital, Chen lost contact with the outside world.
Crackdown on citizen journalists
Other citizen journalists and bloggers also have been detained or gone offline — a sign that many observers believe means they were arrested or under an "enforced disappearance."
Authorities on February 1 arrested Wuhan resident Fang Bin, who had documented the epidemic. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Another citizen journalist, Li Zehua appeared in a video April 22, two months after he livestreamed security officials coming into the Wuhan apartment where he was staying.
In a video posted to YouTube, Li said he had been in "quarantine" because he visited sensitive areas, the BBC reported.
On April 19, three activists lost contact with their families: Chen Mei, Cai Wei and his girlfriend, named in reports as Tang, volunteer with the Terminus 2049 website. The website has been backing articles related to the COVID-19 outbreak online that were deleted by authorities.
Authorities sent letters to the families of two of them saying they had been detained on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," the rights group Committee to Protect Journalists said.
On April 24, authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei sentenced prominent blogger Liu Yanli to four years in prison for insulting the country's leader Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong. Liu was arrested in 2016 and released on bail. Police took her back into custody for breaking her bail restrictions by communicating with "the outside world."
When asked about Chen Qiushi, China's ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai repeatedly said he has not heard of this person, according to reports.
China's embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's emailed request for comment.
Safety in truth
"As a citizen reporter, Chen Qiushi did nothing wrong, he just recorded what he saw and heard. We should continue to pay attention to his case and call for his freedom," Chen's friend, who has been handling his Twitter account, told VOA.
The friend recalled one of the journalist's Weibo posts in which Chen said people had warned him to be careful.
"If everyone dares to tell the truth, I WILL be safe," Chen said in the post. "It is precisely because Chinese people care so much about their own safety that China has become what it is like today, and things have become more and more dangerous for me."
Chen's friend said he was impressed by this post, because "it's all too real."
In an interview with VOA in November, Chen had said he did not care if he was being monitored.
If state security officials watched his videos, Chen said, they would find out he "loves his country more than they do."
In the interview, Chen said he once was asked how much he would sacrifice for his country. His answer: "My life."
This story originated in VOA's Mandarin Service.