A Hong Kong reporter who has been unreachable since travelling to China more than one month ago is the second journalist at her newspaper to have a lengthy unexplained absence from work in as many years, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
Minnie Chan, a reporter with the South China Morning Post (SCMP), has been out of contact with friends since travelling to Beijing in late October to attend the Xiangshan Forum, Japan’s Kyodo News reported on Thursday, raising fears she may have been detained by Chinese authorities.
The Hong Kong-based SCMP, which is owned by Chinese tech giant Alibaba, said on Friday that Chan is on personal leave in Beijing and that it had been informed by her family that she “needs time to handle a private matter”.
“Her family has told us she is safe but has requested that we respect her privacy,” a spokesperson for the newspaper said. “We are in contact with Minnie’s family and we have no further information to disclose.”
The SCMP’s statement, however, has not assuaged concerns about Chan’s welfare, with associates and media freedom groups calling for assurances of her safety.
Chan’s absence comes after another SCMP reporter dropped out of contact in China for a number of months in 2022, raising concerns among colleagues that they may have been detained, four people familiar with discussions in the newsroom told Al Jazeera.
The reporter, whose work was not published at SCMP for a period of nine months, later returned to work at the newspaper, but in a different section covering less politically sensitive news. The reporter has not written for SCMP for a number of months and it is unclear if she is still employed at the newspaper.
Al Jazeera has chosen not to name the reporter, who did not respond to requests for comment, out of respect for their privacy.
The SCMP declined to comment on “speculative reporting” about the second reporter, citing privacy considerations.
“The safety of our journalists in the course of their professional work is of the utmost importance to us,” a spokesperson said.
Media freedom organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), continue to be concerned about Chan’s welfare.
“Reports about the disappearance of Hong Kong journalist Minnie Chan after a work trip to Beijing are extremely concerning, and Chinese authorities must immediately disclose her location and guarantee her safety,” Iris Hsu, the CPJ’s China representative, said in a statement on Friday.
“Journalists must be able to do their work without fearing for their safety.”
Former South China Morning Post editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei also said on social media that he was “pray[ing] for Minnie Chan, my friend and my former colleague at SCMP”, without elaborating further.
On Monday, Article 19, a freedom of expression advocacy group, criticised the SCMP for threatening legal action against Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), an online news outlet, after its editor-in-chief contacted the newspaper for comment on Chan’s case.
“That HKFP has been singled out with the threat of legal action has all the hallmarks of arbitrary litigation to silence and intimidate a free press performing its function as a public watchdog,” said Michael Caster, Article 19’s Asia digital programme manager.
“Rather than threatening legal action, South China Morning Post should be grateful for the outpouring of support and solidarity for its journalist.”
Article 19’s statement came after the SCMP told HKFP’s editor-in-chief in an email that it was “concerned you may be rushing to conclusions not supported by facts” and that it reserved the right to take legal action against “any misreporting of this matter concerning the Post.”
Hong Kong’s media environment, once among the most vibrant in Asia, has deteriorated dramatically since the introduction of a Beijing-decreed national security law in 2020.
The SCMP, which has become known for its pro-Beijing editorial line in recent years, was spared from police raids that shuttered most of the city’s independent and pro-democracy media.
China is among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with at least 43 reporters in custody in 2022, according to the CPJ.
Last month, Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who worked with Chinese state-run CGTN, was released after spending three years in custody on national security charges.
Chinese authorities have a range of powers at their disposal to detain journalists for long periods without charge.
Chinese police can hold suspects for up to 37 days before making an official arrest and up to 13.5 months before pressing formal charges, according to a Canadian travel advisory.
Under another form of detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated location”, suspects can be held for up to six months without being charged or having access to a lawyer.