Mamtjan Juma was once a Western art teacher in China's remote western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In 2006, his life took a sudden turn. While in the U.S. for a conference, the English language school in China that he founded was blacklisted and shutdown for reasons that still remain unknown to him.
As an ethnic Uighur, Juma feared prosecution with the crime of "spreading Western ideology." Like neighboring Tibet, China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region has long chafed at rule from Beijing. Uighurs, the region's largest ethnic group, are Muslim and speak a Turkic language. Chinese efforts to suppress Uighur culture and autonomy, including banning women from wearing the veil and young men from growing beards, have only added fuel to Uighur discontent.
Unemployed and afraid, Juma found a job in the U.S. in a completely new field: journalism. He was hired by Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-sponsored news service that broadcasts news to Asia in many local languages, including Uighur.
Now a senior editor with the news agency, he has covered political and ethnic conflict between Han Chinese and Uighurs and government efforts to repress Uighur cultural and religious independence. The news agency has recently covered the sentence to life in jail for prominent Uighur scholar and blogger Ilham Tohti, a knife attack by four Uighur men on a Han Chinese farmers' market that left 22 dead and the death of a Uighur farmer in jail for "illegal religious activities."
Now living in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter, he spoke with Global Journalist's Alyssa Strickland about his journey from art teacher to journalist, the importance of independent media and the difficulty of living in exile.
GJ: You were an art teacher. What do you like about working for Radio Free Asia?
Juma: Being a journalist and reporting about the atrocities and human rights violations back home…to make other people aware of the real situation back home…is much more useful and powerful than teaching under the surveillance of the government. We report about the real situation; like human rights abuses, language, illegal land grab[s], cultural challenges that Uighur are facing in the region.
The news that we are reporting [at Radio Free Asia] is being omitted from the Chinese media… Even though there are 400,000 Internet users back in China, it's not being reported [through] any kind of platform back home. Media is pretty much under government control. That’s why I love my job and that’s why I love being a journalist because we are targeting a specific area and providing a voice for the voiceless people.
Our work reaches the Uighur community through [shortwave] radio channels and via Internet to some extent. We also translate some original news to English and most of [it] is picked up by other media.
GJ: Do Uighurs in China talk about human rights?
Juma: You can talk about it with your trusted circles…but you can't talk about it anywhere. You would be labeled as anti-government, you could be put in jail or tortured or threatened.
GJ: What media restrictions are there on people in the region? Uighurs
Juma: If you wrote about [the government] or officials wrongdoings, … they wouldn’t publish [the story] anyway. The reporters are government employees as the media [is] part of [a] government entity. Stringers can send their reports with the approval of local government offices. The reports should be positive, even if you send your report, the editors can censor it. If your work is published and it is deemed controversial you can still be punished.
It happened to a Uighur writer Nurememet Yasin, who was jailed for 11 years after his literary work called “Caged” or “Wild Pigeon” was published in the 2000s. Punishment happened when a former director of Xinjiang Legal Daily, Gheyret Niyaz, was imprisoned for 15 years when he expressed his view about the 2009 Urumqi riot [that left at least 197 people dead in the regional capital] to a Hong Kong media outlet. Ilham Tohti was jailed for life for criticizing the government.
Even foreign reporters were restricted while covering conflict within the region. Some were being followed. People are not allowed to talk to the foreign media, [and] people who [did] talk to the foreign media were punished.
GJ: Do you think you will ever be able to return home?
Juma: If the political situation changes back home, yes. Because my family… everything from my childhood…everything is there. It’s hard to see everyone with their [families], whenever I see that then I sometimes get so emotional, but its kind of worth the sacrifice…because who else would do [this]?