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How to Cover China's Internment Camps?

by Sarah Matusek

Bahram Sintash follows news from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region closely, including last year’s press tours of the camps. “I watch most of the videos and reports, but never see my father,” Sintash said. “Many Uyghurs are watching.”

He suspects the colorful choreography, ethnic songs, and detainees’ smiles for the camera were prearranged. 

Sintash’s father, Qurban Mamut, was editor-in-chief of Xinjiang Civilization, a popular Uyghur cultural journal. When Mamut’s wife complained the work ate up nights and weekends, he’d counter: This is my responsibility. He passed this conviction on to Sintash. Now a U.S. citizen in Virginia, Sintash is on a mission to prevent his father’s erasure. 

He believes his father’s status as a Uyghur intellectual landed him in a detention camp after an arbitrary arrest in February 2018. His mother, still in Xinjiang, has blocked all communication with him,likely for security. Without updates, Sintash doesn’t know who’s still alive. An outspoken Uyghur activist and researcher, Sintash uses social media to demand that China offer proof of life for his father and other Uyghurs and release them. Otherwise, “China is destroying us,” he said.

Internment camps for predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minority ethnic groups proliferated across the region in April 2017, a year after Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo's arrival. Currently, an estimated one million or more people are held in these camps. China has explained the crackdown as a way to thwart perceived threats of “terrorism” and “extremism” in a region critical to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar trade and infrastructure project. 

“Is it your choice to be here?” the BBC asked a young detainee, shown dancing in a documentary from June. 

“Yes ... I was influenced by extremism and terrorism,” he said. “A policeman at my village told me to get enrolled in school and transform my thoughts.”

Uyghurs reportedly face detention for simply reading the Quran or sending money to a relative abroad. Allegations have emerged of political brainwashing, torture, and deaths behind the barbed wire. The United Nations has called for access to investigate Xinjiang’s alleged human rights abuses, which U.S. lawmakers have begun to call “crimes against humanity.”

A senior Chinese official announced in December that all “trainees” had been released. Skeptical relatives demand proof. Even if some detainees have been released, reports have emerged of detainee transfers to prisons and other forced labor camps. Special facilities house children effectively orphaned by the system.

Press tours of detention camps aren’t new. Governments have led press tours of their concentration camps at least since Spain’s mass detention of civilians began in Cuba in the 1890s, writes Andrea Pitzer, whose One Long Night chronicles the history of mass civil detention. Nazi Germany made no secret of its first permanent concentration camp in Dachau. “To the contrary, the Nazi press covered its opening in detail, on the theory that merely knowing it existed would serve as a public deterrent,” writes historian Doris Bergen in her book War and Genocide. A Nazi-run “show camp” called Oranienburg hosted numerous journalists in 1933. 

“A huge blind spot with almost every regime is that usually early on they will let people come in and they will actually reveal their own unethical and inhumane treatment, because they’re so blind to how bad it is, that they will sort of give part of their game away,” Pitzer said in an interview over the phone.

In the Third Reich’s words, the political prisoners were in for "reeducation." China has revived this language to defend the camps in Xinjiang. Although Beijing first denied the camps’ existence—before they seeped into international news—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has offered tightly controlled tours of so-called "vocational training centers" to diplomats and select media. Journalists must consider access, privacy, and transparency when deciding how to engage. The ethical calculus extends beyond the tour itself as newsrooms consider what material to publish with the aim to minimize harm.

Of the foreign media that have tried to penetrate the Orwellian surveillance and security of Xinjiang, Bloomberg, the BBC, and Reuters are among outlets that have published reporting from tours of the camps. To varying degrees, journalists tend to be closely “chaperoned” on these tours, curbing their ability to independently investigate. Such disclosures to readers are crucial. Not only do they signal the range of reporting challenges faced in pursuit of the larger story, but also remind China that these tours won’t be taken at face value.   

Other journalists make ethical decisions not to pursue such trips. Pitzer, who has reported from Guantánamo Bay and Rohingya refugee camps, says she decided not to travel to North Korea while researching her book, since she lacked knowledge of Korean language and culture that could help her decipher the controlled environment. 

“I didn’t feel I would be able to carry it off in a way that it would serve readers – and ethically represent the experience of those inside the camps,” she said on the phone. 

A Western journalist who has covered mass detention in Xinjiang acknowledges that accepting tour invitations is fraught, since the course is designed to reinforce the illusion of open access.

“Simply signing up can sometimes be part of the sort of propaganda victory itself,” says the journalist, who cannot publicly discuss their outlet’s reporting on the camps. 

Committing to the tour triggered intense ethical discussions surrounding sources’ representation, says the journalist. In some instances, if detainees appeared to reveal more than they may have preferred, those parts of the testimony were not included in the story.

Government-led tours’ limited access may be preferable to no access. “If [reporters] had refused the trip and there was no story told by anyone, then China’s treatment of Muslims does not become known,” Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, wrote in an email last summer. 

Since then, troves of CCP internal documents leaked to the New York Times and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and published in November shed further light on Xinjiang’s large-scale detention. Authenticated by linguists and experts, the official documents corroborate clues as to how the facilities work. The uncovered imperative from the ICIJ leak to “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes” substantiates an observation from Peter Martin’s tour for Bloomberg: The dormitory doors only lock from the outside.

Fletcher, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) who serves on its ethics committee, also says journalists should explain ethical choices to audiences, an imperative found in SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Transparency elucidates limitations placed on the press by the tour hosts.

Bloomberg’s Peter Martin accomplished this when he employed the first person for his April 2019 report on Shu Le County Education Center. “I wasn’t able to speak independently with any residents on the trip, or travel around without being followed,” wrote Martin. “But the group was allowed to ask questions of officials, including repeated follow ups that at times angered our hosts.”

When BBC’s Beijing correspondent John Sudworth attempted to revisit a camp uninvited, his team was confronted by individuals who did not want them to film. In some ways, on-camera admonishments outside the camps provide more authenticity than their interiors, because, unlike the detainees’ choreography, this is not rehearsed. 

At Hotan County Education Training Center, Sudworth presses a camp official to explain the logic of the official rhetoric.  

“But doesn’t a place where people have to come, obey the rules, stay until you allow them to leave, sound more like a prison?” asks Sudworth, surrounded by tracksuit-clad “students” painting portraits. “Even if it’s a prison in which you can do some art?” 

“Prison?” he pushes back. “Is there a prison where you can paint?” 

Bloomberg’s headline – “How China Is Defending Its Detention of Muslims to the World” – further hints at the controlled circumstances of the tour. Martin added that though detainees allegedly could come and go freely, they could not leave without an official escort. Fletcher, SPJ’s former national president, would have preferred that the article also discuss the ethical pros and cons of Bloomberg’s decision to take the trip at all.  

Reuters’ Ben Blanchard provided some context to his reporting in a short video. “These were most likely chosen for us because they are model camps,” he explained on-screen. “They are certainly very different from the kinds of camps that we have previously visited on non-official government trips, or at least that we have seen from the outside.” 

Word choice presents another chance for transparency, especially as language has become increasingly politicized as China scrambles to manage its image. While many news outlets use quotation marks around “reeducation” or “vocational training camps” as a way to signal rhetoric from Beijing, Reuters has, at times, come under fire for appearing to accept China’s framing as fact. On Twitter, historian Rian Thum, who has researched Uyghur history in China, has criticized Reuters’ reference to detainees as “residents” in a photo caption. (In several other stories, Reuters does employ quotation marks around such terms.)

“Just like papers did with Nazi show ghetto/camp Theresienstadt,” Thum tweeted last year. “Journos writing on Xinjiang: educate your photo editors.”

Navigating informed consent leads to additional considerations around what to publish. Bloomberg didn’t identify camp detainees, or use pictures of their faces, “because it was unclear whether they were participating willingly in the events,” wrote Martin. While the BBC chose not to show handwriting on a wall that spelled “Oh my heart, don’t break,” the team did show many detainees’ faces, including beaming dancers who they engaged in close-up interviews.

The Poynter Institute’s Senior Vice President and Media Ethicist Kelly McBride sees the value of both approaches. “There’s this entire community of expats that are trying to figure out who’s in what camps…so that sort of information would be helpful to them,” she said on the merits of showing detainees’ faces. 

Detainees are sometimes identified by acquaintances abroad through online content, like a now iconic photo from 2017 taken in a camp in Hotan. The photo was originally posted to the Xinjiang Judicial Administration’s WeChat account, according to Radio Free Asia.

Journalists must diversify their sources to balance reporting from the tours and carry out independent investigations when possible. McBride says that news organizations weighing government-led tours must commit to stories that are larger than the tour alone.      

“Your purpose has to be to tell the truth about the camp, meaning that you have to be well-sourced so that you can get to the truth,” said McBride. “You need to be able to do the story without the government tour.” 

She added that journalists should be prepared to use little information gleaned from inside the camps, “because it’s all so tainted.” News teams should also clarify logistics: Who will be interpreting? To what extent are you allowed to photograph, film, record?

Many outlets have increasingly referenced satellite imagery that shows the destruction of mosques in Xinjiang over time, drawing upon the work of Sintash and other researchers.

Survivors who have begun to exit the camps are also integral to the story. In the BBC documentary published in June, Sudworth includes an interview with former detainee Rakhima Senbay who spent over a year in the camp system for having WhatsApp on her phone. Ahead of tours, she says, detainees were warned they’d be sent to “a worse place than this” if they spoke out. 

Senbay’s voice is a reminder to all journalists accepting terms of access: Scrutiny is key. After all, the truth of inside the camps might best be told by those who are free.

Sarah Matusek was a 2019 Journalism Fellow. She writes and edits for The Christian Science Monitor, where she is also a Poynter-Koch Fellow.