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Leading jailer China continuing to imprison journalists

China, the leading jailer of journalists around the world in 2005, has lived up to its ill-reputation by continuing to imprison journalists this year.

The Gulou district court in southern China's Fuzhou city convicted Li Changqing on January 24 of "spreading false and alarmist information," defence lawyer Mo Shaoping told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The charge was linked to an article published on the banned Chinese-language website Boxun News exposing an outbreak of dengue fever in Fujian province before the authorities officially announced it.


ALL POINTLESS NOW: A copy of Freezing Point (bottom), the weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily, is displayed with other newspapers in Beijing January 25, 2006. China's propaganda mandarins closed an outspoken supplement of a respected newspaper, as Web search leader Google announced restrictions on a new service for China to avoid confrontation with Beijing. (Stringer/Reuters)

Mo told CPJ his client, given a three-year jail sentence, was the victim of factors "outside the law." Li, who worked for the newspaper Fuzhou Daily, was detained in February 2005 after supporting whistleblower Huang Jingao. Huang was sentenced to life in prison in November 2005 on corruption charges after he publicly exposed official misconduct in a letter to the People's Daily newspaper.

China was the world's leading jailer of journalists, with 32 imprisoned in December 2005, according to CPJ research.

Huang, a Communist Party official in Fujian province wrote an open letter to the state-run People's Daily in 2004 denouncing corruption among local officials. Huang won public support after describing death threats that he said forced him to wear a bulletproof vest. In November 2005 he was convicted of accepting bribes and sentenced to life in prison. Supporters said the charges were politically motivated.

Li, whom authorities accused of helping to write Huang's open letter and who publicly supported Huang in newspaper and online articles, was initially charged with inciting subversion. That charge was later dropped and authorities filed a new charge related to an October 13, 2004 report in the US-based Chinese-language website Boxun News. Boxun reported on January 18 it had received an anonymous report on an outbreak of dengue fever, a viral, mosquito-borne disease, in Fuzhou.

The author, identified by his lawyer as Li, reported more than 20 cases, according to Boxun. But the website increased the number to 100 cases after doing its own research. Days later the official media confirmed 30 cases in Fujian. The Chinese government has previously been criticised for withholding information on public health issues.

"This is a terribly unjust punishment for a journalist who has committed no crime," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "Li Changqing should be released immediately and unconditionally."

China's Propaganda Department on January 24 also ordered the closure of Bing Dian (Freezing Point), the weekly supplement of Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (China Youth Daily), an influential weekly newspaper that often tackled touchy political and social subjects, as the authorities stepped up efforts to curb the spread of information and views the Communist Party considers unfavourable, the New York Times reported. The sudden decision ended two years of friction between the supplement's editor, Li Datong, and the newspaper's owner, the Communist Youth League.

"After the crises at Xin Jing Bao and Nanfang Dushi Bao in the past month, Bing Dian's closure confirms that the Communist Party's propaganda chiefs want to reduce the room for expression for the liberal newspapers to zero," Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. "We are very concerned at where this crackdown could lead, because it is gaining pace in the run-up to the Spring festivities," RSF added, calling on Zhongguo Qingnian Bao's editors to reverse their decision and resume publishing the supplement.

According to RSF, editor Li Datong said the authorities singled out a January 18 article entitled "Modernisation and history textbooks," saying it expressed a "dangerous" view of the foreign occupation of China at the end of the 19th century. The supplement was accused of hurting national sentiment by romanticizing the invasion. The offending article ceased to be available on the newspaper's website.


LAND AND DISPUTE: Farming land on the outskirts of Beijing. Two journalists in eastern China have been sentenced to up to 10 years in jail for publishing an unauthorized magazine that exposed local land disputes, a court official said. (Agence France-Presse/Goh Chai Hin)

Li was summoned by Communist Youth League officials on January 24 and notified that his supplement was being closed. He was not told why, or what would happen to the 13 journalists who worked on the supplement. Bing Dian was not on sale in newsstands on January 25, while the newspaper's intranet site said nothing about the suspension. RSF confirmed that its discussion forum (http://www.cyol.net) was blocked. A message said this was due to a technical problem.

Li, who is well-known, told the Associated Press that he was very angry. "I cannot reveal to you all the details of this case," he told the editor of Radio Free Asia. "For the time being, Bing Dian will no long appear and there is nothing we can do about it," he said, stressing that it would be "dangerous" for him to say any more.

One of Li's former colleagues said he had done everything possible to promote investigative journalism and the critical examination of social problems. The publication of an essay by a Taiwanese woman politician entitled "Perhaps you do not know Taiwan", in the supplement last October, triggered a heated debate in China.

Li was a fierce critic of Li Erliang, who was appointed by the Communist Youth League as Zhongguo Qingnian Bao's editor at the end of 2004. He published an open letter condemning the management's decision to impose new criteria on the journalists and to make promotions and raises conditional on the praise received from the Publicity Department (the former Propaganda Department).

"Bing Dian has been in the Chinese Communist Party's sights ever since the publication of that open letter," dissident Liu Xiaobo told Radio Free Asia. Created in 1995, Bing Dian was very popular and had a print run of 400,000.

Earlier, long jail sentences were given to two journalists who reported on rural unrest in China's southeast province of Zhejiang. Zhu Wanxiang and Wu Zhengyou were convicted of illegal publishing, fraud, and extortion after covering land disputes, and sentenced on January 17, according to CPJ.

The journalists were detained in August 2005 after they forged journalist accreditation and illegally published a magazine, called New China Youth, without proper registration. On December 28, 2005, the two were tried along with five colleagues at the Liandu district court in the city of Lishui, Zhejiang Province. Zhu was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Wu received a six-year sentence. The others were also found guilty, and it is unclear whether they will be punished.

"We are deeply concerned for our colleagues and call for their immediate release," said Cooper. "But we are also gravely concerned about what their imprisonment says about the Chinese media. The fact that journalists are prevented from reporting on such critical matters of public interest as rural unrest makes clear that the Chinese government remains fully committed to a policy of information control."

State news agency Xinhua reported that the journalists were charged with extorting money from rural villagers and government officials while reporting on land disputes and a violent protest in Lishui city in May. They were also convicted of illegally raising funds for the magazine, according to news reports.

Under the Chinese system of licensing and accreditation journalists can be jailed for reporting without government supervision. Journalists are required to seek official certification, and publications must register with government agencies before they report news. Illegal publishing is common, and rules barring it are unevenly enforced.


OFF STANDS: A Chinese man buys an issue of the Beijing News at a newsstand in China's capital Beijing in this April 24, 2005 file photo. About 100 Beijing News reporters walked out in protest at this week's dismissal of the top editor, the latest victim of China's strict press controls, industry sources said on December 30, 2005. (Reuters/Claro Cortes Iv/Files)

Protests over land disputes are increasingly common in China, and news and information about rural unrest is guarded closely by local officials and the central government. Last month, the government removed the editors of the daily Beijing News after they reported independently on rural protests. In September 2005, activist and writer Guo Feixiong was jailed for several months for advocating for residents of southern China's Taishi village involved in a recall campaign of a local elected official.

The Chinese authorities’ hounding of liberal dailies Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News) and Xin Jing Bao (Beijing News) has spread despondency in the editorial offices expected to leading journalists to resign after the Chinese New Year.

"Many of us have lost hope in this newspaper after discovering the invisible monster that is hiding behind it," one Xin Jing Bao journalist told RSF. "A lot of us are ready to leave Xin Jing Bao to join other media, particularly news websites."

Discouraged by the determination of the government newspaper Guangming Ribao to put them under close surveillance, several journalists, including section heads, have reportedly decided to leave the Beijing daily, after the Chinese New Year.

The same thing has been happening at the daily Nanfang Dushi Bao, published in Guangzhou (South), after the sacking, on December 30, 2005, of its deputy editor, Xia Yitao. The Publicity Department (formerly Propaganda Department) was displeased by the headline of an article about sanctions imposed on a deputy governor after a coal mining accident.

"Even the imprisonment of the former editor Cheng Yizhong didn’t manage to discourage us. But this is now changing, since the Nanfang press group to which the paper belongs, has been sending us very conservative people to sack the journalists they do not appreciate," one journalist told RSF. "This newspaper is getting to be more and more like a government office. That is the reason for the imminent departure of the cultural editor and some of his colleagues who have no more faith in their newspaper"

Apart from an ideological turning of the screw, the desire of official press groups to bring these popular dailies under control also has a financial motive.

"The former communist press is proving less and less successful. As a result, it has decided to tap into the revenue of the popular new newspapers aimed at an urban public. Nanfang Dushi Bao is a notable example of this. It earns a lot of money. Unfortunately, these resignations will allow Guangming Ribao and Nanfang Ribao to place their own journalists within the editorial teams, which will mean a victory for the Chinese communist party," concluded one Beijing journalist.

Date posted: January 29, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 11