The letter describes Yu and Li as innocent victims of an unjust prosecution. It was signed by 2,356 journalists who work at five prominent print publications--Nanfang Dushi Bao, Xin Jing Bao, Di Yi Caijing Ribao, Xinwen Wanbao, and Shanghai Qingnian Bao--and two major Internet news outlets--Sina.com and Sohu.com. Analysts have described the number of signatories as unprecedented.
Yu and Li have been jailed since January 2004. Yu, the newspaper's former deputy editor-in-chief, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. Li, its former editor, was sentenced to 11 years for bribery in a related case. In an appellate trial held on June 7, 2004, Yu's sentence was reduced to eight years, while Li's sentence was reduced to six years.
Yu and Li were imprisoned after the aggressive investigative reporting of Nanfang Dushi Bao embarrassed local officials. The newspaper broke news that a young graphic designer, Sun Zhigang, was beaten to death in government custody in March 2003. The daily also reported a suspected SARS case in December 2003 before the government made the information public.
Chinese journalists familiar with the case have told the Committee to Protect Journalists that evidence presented in court did not support the corruption charges.
"A few among us will speak on behalf of the whole group to continue to advocate until we see justice served in this case," said the journalists' letter, dated June 8, 2005. "We firmly believe it is just a matter of time until justice will prevail. And we believe that sooner is better than later."
The newspaper's former editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong was also jailed for five months last year; Chinese journalists, academics, lawyers and government officials had openly advocated for his release.
The recent letter signed by journalists recalled that Cheng was named the 2005 recipient of a United Nations press freedom award. He was banned from attending the awards ceremony in Senegal in May.
No independent journalists union exists in China, and authorities have taken steps to deter journalists from publicly advocating for greater freedom or for the defense of imprisoned colleagues. Journalists have been intimidated, harassed, and jailed after advocating on behalf of other writers and media workers.
"We join with our colleagues in calling for the release of Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, who are unjustly imprisoned for the independent reporting of their newspaper," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.
The government has reasserted control over China's media, arresting journalists for local and foreign media organizations in response to their reporting or commentary. China was the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2004 for the sixth consecutive year; 42 journalists were behind bars at year's end.
Newsweek this week reported that the Chinese Minister of Publicity Liu Yunshan recently issued a directive calling on local officials to rein in the press by cracking down on practices such as yidi baodao. Under this practice, journalists evade local propaganda officials by reporting on corruption and crime outside of their own province.