September 18, 2008 · Print This Article
Alive in Baghdad’s Brian Conley and five other Americans were arrested in Beijing during the Olympics. New media helped free them.
Eowyn Rieke was asleep in her West Philly apartment when she got the text message from her husband: “In jail. All fine.”
It would be morning before Rieke, then 31 weeks pregnant, would read the message. By then the world was already aware of her husband’s arrest and detainment in Beijing, news of which broke in the blogosphere and spread to mainstream outlets in a matter of hours.
Brian Conley, 28, a Philadelphia-based independent journalist and founder of the popular video blog Alive in Baghdad, was feeling ill and resting in his room at the Bo Tai Hotel in Beijing on Aug. 19 when he heard an aggressive knock on the door.
“Hang on,” he said, assuming it was his suitemate and friend Jeffrey Rae.
“Sir, please open up,” said a Chinese-accented voice after a third knock. “It’s the police.”
Conley let the officers in, and they quickly confiscated his camera equipment and phone. He was driven to the Dong Chen Hotel, where he was interrogated for 22 hours about his visit to China. He was then taken to the Chong Wen District detention center.
The van pulled up to the building in the middle of the night. “It could’ve been a college dorm,” says Conley. “It was nondescript.” He was put into a holding cell with about 11 other inmates, each of whom had a wooden bed.
Conley was one of six Americans arrested on Aug. 19 for recording and uploading images of pro-Tibet demonstrations outside the Olympic games. The group of detainees—Conley; Jeffrey Rae of Wayne, Pa.; and New Yorkers James Powderly, Michael Liss, Tom Grant and Jeff Goldin—was quickly branded the “Beijing 6” on pro-Tibet activist blogs. They were all sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention for “upsetting public order.”
“I’m not sure how they knew where to find Brian,” says Rae, who was already in police custody when Conley was apprehended. “But most likely they saw he was staying in the same room as me.”
|Pro-Tibet protestors lock bikes in Ethnic Park, Beijing, China on Aug. 13, 2008. (Photo by Jeffrey Rae)|
Once in custody, the six were aggressively questioned about their activities and reasons for being in China. Their cell phones, laptops and photographic equipment were seized, except for those of Rae, who refused to give them his passwords. He even lied, telling them iPhones don’t have SIM cards in the U.S.
Other non-Chinese people were arrested for protest-related activities during the Olympics as well, but most of them were released or immediately deported. Conley asked Chinese authorities why he and his fellow citizen journalists received a harsher punishment.
“They told me it was because I was responsible for distributing images that were damaging to China’s image around the world,” he says. “The other people just expressed their opinion.”
After settling in at the detention center Conley was given back his cell phone, which he was told to put in his pocket. But when the guard watching him fell asleep, he took out his phone, quickly typed the text message to his wife and posted to the micro-blogging website Twitter to let his friends know he’d been jailed.
After they got word, Rieke and other relatives of the detainees began spreading the news via blogs and email, urging friends and supporters to contact the U.S. Embassy, State Department and appropriate legislative representatives.
Rae and Conley had prepared well for their detainment. It wasn’t the first time. In 2006 they were arrested in Oaxaca, Mexico, while documenting protests demanding higher wages for teachers. Before leaving for China, Rae gave his father a list of email addresses of people to contact should anything happen, and he asked a friend to log onto his MySpace and Facebook sites to post bulletins.
By 11 a.m. EST on Aug. 19, the story had been picked up by the popular technology blog BoingBoing. The next day Agence France-Presse reported that the U.S. government was urging China to respect freedom of speech after learning of the arrests.
|A protestor is led away by Beijing police. (Photo by Jeffrey Rae)|
By this time, a dedicated website had been set up to provide updates, and a Facebook group called “Free the Beijing Six” boasted more than 600 members.
On Aug. 24 Conley and the other five Americans were led from their cells and told they were being released early (they weren’t told why).
“I think we were let go because there was political pressure on the Chinese government,” says Rae. “There’s no other explanation.”
Rae and Conley partially credit the Internet and mobile technology for their early release.
“It was pretty huge,” says Conley. “The speed with which the story spread throughout the blogosphere was certainly influential.”