IRE's Don Bolles Medal for 2021 has been awarded to four investigative journalists who have courageously worked to expose human rights abuses in China, as well as that country's handling of the coronavirus crisis, and faced retaliation from the government of China for their reporting.
This year's recipients are Chao Deng, Josh Chin and Philip Wen of The Wall Street Journal and Chris Buckley of The New York Times.
The Don Bolles Medal recognizes investigative journalists who have exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up against intimidation or efforts to suppress the truth about matters of public importance.
"China makes it incredibly difficult for journalists to uncover truths that the government would rather keep hidden from the rest of the world," said IRE Board President Cheryl W. Thompson. "These journalists have all shown extraordinary courage in digging up those important stories, and as a result, they faced the wrath of the Chinese government."
Deng, Chin and Wen were expelled from China in February 2020 in the first mass expulsion of journalists in the post-Mao era. While the government of China claimed that it was retaliating for the headline of an opinion column (knowing that the Journal's news and editorial operations are completely separate), the expulsions enabled Chinese officials to suppress critical reporting about the government's failures.
Deng was reporting from Wuhan about the ongoing coronavirus crisis when the Foreign Ministry ordered her to cease all journalistic activity and to prepare for expulsion from the country. Her reporting had revealed questions about the accuracy of the government's COVID tests and about how the outbreak had overwhelmed the city's health care system. Previously, Deng exposed how Western companies had become "entangled in China's campaign to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population."
Wen's reporting raised questions about the potential involvement of Chinese President Xi Jinping's cousin in organized crime, money laundering and influence-peddling schemes. He also revealed how China had shifted its strategy for dealing with ethnic Muslims from forced re-education centers to more subtle forms of control.
Chin had reported on how China, in an effort to snuff out a Muslim separatist group, had turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang "into a laboratory for high-tech social controls." He revealed how the government, after rounding up Muslim Uighur residents, had demolished neighborhoods in an attempt to purge their culture. Chin also reported on how employees of Huawei Technologies had helped African governments to spy on their political opponents.
"Chao, Phil and Josh are the kind of foreign correspondents that are increasingly unwelcome in China -- reporters who are native-level fluent in Mandarin, who have spent years in the country and who dare to report on sensitive subjects that otherwise will not be told to the outside world," said the Journal's China bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng.
In July 2020, in a signal of the Chinese government's determination to extend its repressive reach, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley was forced to leave Hong Kong after authorities refused to renew his visa.
Two months earlier, Buckley had been reporting from Wuhan when his press card expired, and he was forced to pack his bags and leave mainland China. In the early days of the outbreak, Buckley had described conditions "with the sick being herded into makeshift quarantine camps, with minimal medical care, a growing sense of abandonment and fear."
His reporting had previously revealed how China was detaining Muslims in vast numbers, "where they are forced to listen to lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write 'self-criticism' essays." He was part of the duo that published the leaked Xinjiang Papers, more than 400 pages of internal Chinese documents that exposed details of the Chinese government's mass detention of Muslims.
Former IRE Board member Phil Williams, who has spearheaded the nomination process for the Don Bolles Medal, said the four journalists exemplify the increasing difficulty that investigative journalists face throughout China.
"In honoring these four courageous journalists, we also recognize the work of countless other journalists who struggle every day to shine light into the dark corners of China," Williams said. "As China plays an increasingly important role on the world stage, the Don Bolles Medal should be seen as a call for more transparency and for the freedom to report throughout the country."
The Don Bolles Medal was created in 2017 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Arizona Project, an effort led by IRE to finish the work of Don Bolles. The Arizona Republic investigative reporter was killed in 1976 by a car bomb in retaliation for his reporting.
Bolles’ death came a few days before the first national IRE conference in Indianapolis, where the veteran reporter had been scheduled to speak on a panel. At the time, Bolles had been investigating allegations of land fraud involving prominent politicians and individuals with ties to organized crime.
After his murder, nearly 40 journalists from across the country descended on Arizona to complete his investigation. News organizations across the country published their findings.
Their message: Efforts to suppress the truth will be met by even greater efforts from the rest of the journalism community to tell it.