Beijing devotes immense resources to restricting access for and stanching scrutiny from international groups and reporters. It’s a feat for any journalist to break through the obstacles—all the more so for the Uighur Service’s staff, who themselves grew up in Xinjiang and for whom the work exacts a heavy emotional toll. Many have had family members in China detained as a direct result of their reporting. And every day, it seems, another prominent Uighur goes missing, another symbol of Uighur life is erased, and the situation grows bleaker. At a time when the Chinese government appears bent on stamping out Uighur culture and religion, though, members of the Uighur Service say they have no choice but to press forward.
“This is not just my job; it is a duty to my people,” Hoshur told me. His 78-year-old mother in Xinjiang was detained and his two brothers are currently in camps, along with their wives and sons. “The urgency of this situation needs to be known by the world.”
From the day RFA began broadcasting in 1996, funded by grants from the U.S. government, Beijing has viewed the outlet as an implicit threat. Xinjiang, blanketed with police checkpoints and high-tech surveillance equipment, can be a difficult place for reporters to cover. But for RFA’s journalists, who are barred from entry to mainland China, matters are all the more complicated.
These days, Uighur Service reporters usually each place hundreds of calls a day to Xinjiang, including at night to account for the time difference with China. Few calls connect, however, and with many Uighurs missing—or rightly fearful of the consequences of speaking with journalists—willing sources are becoming more difficult to come by. In recent months, RFA has come to suspect China of employing voice-recognition technology against its reporters, as calls reliably cut off within the first minute. Even when journalists employ tools that alter their voice, windows to speak are fleeting. “If I can confirm one or two facts, I am lucky,” says Eset Sulaiman, a former professor of Uighur literature at Xinjiang University who joined RFA in 2013. “Then I start again.”
What RFA reporters lack by way of access, they make up for with extensive knowledge of the region. Armed with a local’s understanding of Xinjiang’s culture and bureaucratic minutiae, they often know precisely which entities to call to verify the latest scoops. Between them, they also boast a wide-ranging linguistic repertoire—Uighur, Mandarin, English, Russian, Turkish, Kazakh, and a smattering of European languages—which enables them to engage with both Chinese authorities and members of the Uighur diaspora, spread across parts of Central Asia, Europe, and North America.