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Second Chinese journalist jailed in a week

A Chinese court jailed a reporter for a Singapore newspaper for five years on Thursday on a charge of spying, the latest in a series of high-profile cases underscoring China's curbs on the media and dissent.

RELEASE HIM: Pro-democracy demonstrators and local legislators hold photos of jailed journalist Ching Cheong as they rally outside the Chinese Liaison office in Hong Kong. The recent jailing by China of two journalists shows Beijing is determined to maintain control in the run-up to key political meetings and the 2008 Olympic Games, experts said. China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 32 in custody and another 50 Internet campaigners also in prison. (AFP/Mike Clarke)

Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based China correspondent for the Straits Times who has been detained in China since April 2005, was also deprived of his political rights for a year and had personal property worth 300,000 yuan ($37,700) confiscated, Xinhua said. China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 32 in custody and another 50 Internet campaigners also in prison, Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) says.

Ching, 56, was charged with spying for Taiwan, the self-ruled island over which Beijing claims sovereignty. He was detained in the southern province of Guangdong where, his wife Mary Lau has said, he had travelled to collect documents related to disgraced former Chinese Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang.

Ching is the second journalist to be sentenced by China in the last week for releasing state secrets. New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was sentenced to three years in prison. Zhao's arrest on October 20, 2004 came after the Times published a story saying then-President Jiang Zemin would be stepping down as head of the military. He was acquitted on charges of revealing state secrets but convicted of a lesser count of fraud and sentenced to three years in prison.

"Everything about the Ching Cheong case, from his detention and treatment, to the trumped up spying charges and one-day trial behind closed doors, is an affront to fairness and justice," said International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) President Christopher Warren. "IFJ had absolutely no confidence in the judicial process applied and five years in jail is an outrageous sentence for a case that should never have even made it to trial."

"This sentence is appalling," RSF said. "Ching was tried in an unacceptable way on baseless charges. This crackdown on journalists employed by foreign media bodes ill for the Beijing Olympic Games that are now less than two years away and deserves strong condemnation by the International Olympic Committee and the countries taking part."

BEHIND BARS: A police officer stands behind yellow ribbons and a placard featuring a portrait of Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong, tied to a barricade by protestors, outside a Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong September 1, 2006. A Chinese court jailed Ching, a Hong Kong-based Chinese correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, for five years on Thursday on a charge of spying in the latest in a series of high-profile cases illustrating China's curbs on the media and dissent. The Chinese characters on the banner read 'Black-box trial.' (Reuters/Paul Yeung)

"We have still seen no evidence that Ching Cheong has committed a crime, and his jailing fits the Chinese government's disgraceful tactic of using national security charges to jail troublesome journalists," said Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director Joel Simon. "We are distressed by this verdict, which means that Ching will be in jail in Beijing when the world gathers for the Olympic Games in 2008."

Court officials in Beijing reached by telephone declined to comment on the verdict or sentencing in the closed-door trial, a Reuters report said. Ching's lawyer, He Peihua, said the family had asked him not to reveal details of the case. Instead, it issued a statement that called the sentence "extremely regrettable". "The verdict has serious biases and only considered the views of the prosecution," it said.

Ching, his two younger sisters and his lawyer were at Beijing No2 Intermediate People's Court Thursday morning when the verdict was read out. Born in China, Ching holds a passport of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as well as a British National (Overseas) passport issued in the waning days of British colonial rule. He is also a Singapore permanent resident.

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, the parent of the Straits Times, urged China to consider freeing Ching on medical parole. "As he is known to be suffering from high blood pressure and is not in the best of health, we appeal to the Chinese authorities to show him leniency and compassion," it said in a statement.

"We think it's very unfair, because from the beginning to the end nobody knew what happened," James Lung, coordinator of the Hong Kong-based Rescue Ching Cheong Alliance, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

SHOWING SOLIDARITY: Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairperson Serenade Woo attends a news conference in Hong Kong on Beijing's jailing of Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong August 31, 2006. A Chinese court jailed Ching, a Hong Kong-based Chinese correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, for five years on Thursday on a charge of spying in the latest in a series of high-profile cases illustrating China's curbs on the media and dissent. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

Xinhua said Ching received HK$300,000 from a Taiwan foundation, which it did not identify but described as a front for the island's intelligence apparatus. Ching dealt with two persons from the foundation surnamed Xue and Dai with full knowledge that they were spies. His sentence was mitigated by the fact he confessed to more espionage activities than state security had been aware of, it added.

"The court believed Ching accepted the mission he was assigned by the agents and actively transmitted state secrets and intelligence to the spy agency - behaviour which was consistent with the act of espionage," Xinhua said. "But as Ching has faithfully disclosed all other spying activities during his detention, as well as handing over his portable computer - the vital evidence of his spying activities - the court reduced his penalty in accordance with the law," it said.

The last person charged with spying for Taiwan was Tong Daning, a senior official with China's national pension fund, who was executed in April this year. Public servants throughout the country were required to watch a video of his trial as a deterrent.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said that the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was powerless to intervene in the case. "The HKSAR government must respect the 'one country, two systems' principle and does not interfere with the law enforcement and the judicial process on the mainland," he said at a press conference later in the day.

"His sentence was not fair — it's not acceptable that a closed court can sentence someone for so long," said Hong Kong Journalists' Association vice-chairman Lo King-wah. "Five years is not a short amount of time." The association has led a campaign to pressure the Chinese authorities to try Ching in an open court. "This was not an open hearing; we do not even know if they had any evidence against him," said Lo.

DEMANDING HIS RELEASE: A protester holds up a placard of journalist Ching Cheong in front of the Central Government Liason Office during a protest in Hong Kong in December 2005. After gaining a degree in economics in the 1970s at Hong Kong University, instead of embarking on a promising civil service career like many of his contemporaries, he took the unusual step of joining the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper. (AFP/File/Samantha Sin)

Fellow journalists said his jailing could affect reporters' future coverage of China. "It's going to have a chilling effect on what they do," said Lo, according to a report in the New Straits Times. "China is a huge global story, and we have to report it, but now the risks are so much higher that reporters are not going to want to." He said local reporters would now think twice before trusting new sources, and that could mean fewer reports would be filed from the mainland. "You just don't know who you are talking to."

After gaining a degree in economics in the 1970s at Hong Kong University, instead of embarking on a promising civil service career like many of his contemporaries, he took the unusual step of joining the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper.

Ching resigned from Wen Wei Po in 1989 along with some 40 other journalists to protest the June 4 crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. He went on to establish the magazine Commentary, which offered learned articles on the mainland. Ching joined the Straits Times in 1996, initially as a Taiwan correspondent, and wrote a book called Will Taiwan Break Away? - a treatise on Taiwanese nationalism, prompting criticism that he favoured Taiwanese independence.

Date posted: September 1, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10