BBC journalists in China have been sent "violent" threats while covering severe flooding from heavy rains, with armies of social media trolls set upon them tweeting "#BBCSlander".
Reporters from the BBC and other international outlets have been surrounded by angry mobs and targeted with death threats while attempting to cover the devaststing floods in Henan, central China, that have killed 69 people.
Stephen McDonnell, the broadcaster’s China correspondent, said: "There have been threats of violence and personal family-targeted abuse send to the private phones of those working in the foreign media as part of this clearly-orchestrated campaign of harassment, especially focusing on the BBC."
McDonnell blamed "organs of the Communist Party" for the barrage of abuse, and asked whether "there’s something to hide" in the stricken part of the country.
Trolls have called on locals to attack reporters, with one writing: “When you meet them, hammer them to death; hammer them until their grandmothers can’t recognise them.”
Another post said that anyone who attacks the journalists would be a “hero, as everyone is competing for first kill!”. It added that hundreds of people were on the lookout for the journalists and ready to report them to the police.
Foreign journalists are routinely detained, assaulted and intimidated while working in China.
The latest round of harassment began when the Communist Youth League in Henan province posted online on Saturday about BBC correspondent Robin Brant, accusing him of biased reporting. The post included a picture of him and urged the public to report his whereabouts.
Online, the #BBCSlander hashtag has had more than 100 million views. A “clearly-orchestrated campaign of harassment” has subsequently arisen, with people working for foreign media receiving threats of violence and abuse targeting them and their families being sent to their private phones.
On Sunday, an angry mob surrounded Mathias Boelinger, of the German outlet Deutsche Welle, and Alice Su, of the Los Angeles Times, in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan.
“They kept pushing me, yelling that I was a bad guy and that I should stop smearing China,” tweeted Boeliger. “One guy [tried] to snatch my phone.”
Eventually, it became clear that the people had mistaken Boelinger for Brant and later backed off.
Typhoon In-fa has sent another battering of rain along the east coast of China, pelting a number of cities, including Shanghai. In preparation, authorities evacuated hundreds of thousands of people over the weekend.
Threats against foreign journalists in China have grown exponentially. At least 18 journalists for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post were expelled in the first half of 2020.
A number of foreign journalists, including the BBC’s John Sudworth and Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith, were forced to depart quickly over concerns of their safety.
Cheng Lei, an Australian anchor for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN and Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist for Bloomberg, were detained in the second half of 2020 and continue to be held by the authorities.