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Journalists cry freedom in China

A good way of getting a laugh in a room filled with business people is to utter the words: "Trust me, I'm a journalist."

The ribaldry was good natured when I witnessed it a couple of weeks ago but it underscored a feeling that journalists languish somewhere in the realms of property salesmen when it comes to public esteem.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there is cause for a better assessment and it comes from China. When the bosses of Beijing News sacked the chief editor Yang Bin and his deputies Sun Xeudong and Li Duoyu, their colleagues simply downed tools and walked out, a courageous act in a nation that jails more journalists than any other in the world.

They took pride in the reputation of their feisty tabloid for reporting on matters that the authorities would prefer to be swept under the table. It was the same pride that existed among staffers of The Economic Times who resigned when they saw their paper retreating from its cautious but plucky policy of reporting corporate malfeasance and official corruption.

The reporters who quit their jobs on a point of principle are unlikely to find journalistic employment elsewhere. As for Beijing News staff, they are back at work but under close police surveillance and have every reason to fear for their livelihoods.

Striving to provide real news is a dangerous business in China as noted in the latest Reporters Without Borders annual survey which notes that 32 journalists languish in mainland jails.

The journalists jailed in China include Ching Cheong, the veteran Hong Kong reporter held without charge for eight months and Zhao Yan, The New York Times researcher who has been held for even longer without trial. They face extremely seriously charges of espionage and leaking state secrets, yet it appears that they were doing no more than journalists are supposed to do, which is to unearth information about events that concern society.

In Ching's case he was looking into the legacy of the late mainland leader Zhao Ziyang and in Zhao Yan's he discovered that Jiang Zemin was to retire from his leading military role before the state was ready to announce this decision.

Jiang Wei-ping, the Wen Wei Po reporter freed this week after serving half of an eight-year jail sentence for revealing state secrets and subversion, was also doing his job. But in reporting on official corruption he clashed with powerful individuals who were able to have him locked away.

It is highly unlikely that Jiang, Zhao or Ching set out to become martyrs for press freedom. But they share the integrity of journalists determined to get to the bottom of stories that matter.

Shi Tao, the journalist, poet and dissident, belongs to another category of campaigning journalists consciously trying to right wrongs. Last year he sent an e-mail to a US Web site detailing new media restrictions imposed prior to the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The Hong Kong office of Yahoo!, the Internet service provider, helped mainland authorities identify him and he was sentenced to a 10-year jail term for "leaking state secrets abroad." Shi is now reported to be suffering from respiratory problems and a skin disease resulting from forced labor.

It is to be hoped that his condition never matches that of the journalist and art critic Yu Dongyue who has reportedly been driven insane as a result of torture during the 18-year jail sentence he is serving for the offense of "counter- revolutionary propaganda," following the Tiananmen crackdown.

It is entirely possible that other brave journalists in remote parts of the vast Chinese state are suffering for doing what reporters in other countries do every day without fear of retribution.

The big mistake is to think of this as being solely a media problem because the media is little more than a conduit for information, even though it can be an unreliable conduit and a means of making the news rather than reporting it.

China's overriding ambition to take a leading role internationally is edging towards fulfillment but every step forward is hampered by a step back as the leaders in Beijing find new ways of trying to curb the freedoms which are the hallmark of civilized societies.

A worrying number of leading people in Hong Kong still spout the tired old canard about the incompatibility between economic progress and the advancement of democracy and freedom. It is tedious to argue with these people who generally end up proclaiming their undying commitment to freedoms that will arise some time in the distant future when everyone is prosperous.

Yet freedom of expression has played a vital role in creating the prosperity that exists in all the world's most successful economies. In China, the frontlines of the battle for freedom have moved uncomfortably in the direction of newspaper offices, radio studios and in the discreet environment of computer keyboards linked to the Internet.

Joke all you like about journalists elsewhere but think carefully before being ready to dismiss the heroes of Chinese journalism.

Date posted: January 6, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 9