New York, N.Y., Feb. 16, 1999 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomed the release of Chinese journalist Gao Yu on Monday after five years’ imprisonment in Beijing, while cautioning that China’s press freedom climate has worsened in recent months. At least 11 people remain in prison there on journalism-related charges.
CPJ called on Beijing to drop all parole conditions imposed on Gao Yu and to remove a restriction prohibiting her from talking to reporters.
CPJ has repeatedly called for Gao Yu’s release and intensified its efforts recently in light of her deteriorating health from a heart condition. Chinese officials nevertheless forced her to serve all but nine months of a six-year sentence for reporting on Chinese political affairs for Mirror Monthly, a Hong Kong magazine. Gao Yu was first imprisoned by the Chinese government for her journalistic work in 1989, when she was the deputy editor of Economics Weekly, a newspaper which supported the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. When the movement was crushed by Chinese forces in June 1989, authorities closed the newspaper and imprisoned Gao Yu for 15 months for her involvement in the democracy movement.
“Gao Yu is a respected writer who could easily have prospered by serving the interests of the Communist party,” said A. Lin Neumann, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Instead, she chose to follow her commitment to journalism and wound up paying a heavy price.”
Gao Yu was arrested again in October 1993 on the eve of her departure for New York to accept a one-year fellowship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She was charged with “providing state secrets to parties outside the borders” in secret trial in November 1994 in actions that were widely seen as a warning to Chinese journalists against reporting on sensitive topics. In her final trial testimony, Gao Yu reportedly told the court, “I feel no shame. I’ve upheld the country’s best interests with my pen. You have shamed our country.” Gao Yu has been honored by international press freedom organizations and was the first recipient, in 1997, of the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
Upon Gao Yu’s release, CPJ urged the Chinese government to allow her to travel freely and take up her fellowship at Columbia University, if she so desires. CPJ noted that unlike some prominent political prisoners who were freed, Gao was not summarily ejected from the country as a condition of her release.
“Coming two weeks in advance of the scheduled visit to Beijing of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the release of Gao Yu seems timed as a nod toward human rights concerns,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper. “But it will take a lot more than just this gesture to free the Chinese press.”
In recent months, CPJ has protested the expulsion of two foreign correspondents from China and the sentencing of Internet entrepreneur Lin Hai in Shanghai to two years in prison for providing e-mail addresses to an on-line magazine. The Chinese government has increased censorship pressures, especially in southern China: Two newspapers and two magazines have either been suspended or had their editors dismissed in the last two months for violating state censorship guidelines. In addition, CPJ has documented the continued imprisonment of at least 11 journalists, while all other media outlets in the country face strict Communist Party control over the reporting of political and economic stories.
“The fact that things have not really changed for the better for China’s journalists makes Gao Yu more relevant than ever,” said Cooper. “She is a standard bearer for a free press in Asia.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonprofit, independent organization based in New York that works to safeguard press freedom around the world.