New York, August 3, 2000 --- Xinhua state news agency reporter Gao Qinrong has been in jail on trumped-up charges since December 4, 1998, for doing exactly what China's leaders asked the country's journalists to do: help fight corruption.
Two years ago, Gao reported that a much-touted irrigation system in drought-plagued Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, was actually an elaborate scam. A local newspaper, The Yuncheng Daily, had reported that 67,000 water tanks had been built in just six months, but Gao discovered that these cisterns were not connected to any water sourceÑand that there were no pipes carrying water to irrigate the fields.
Gao's article was published on May 27, 1998, in an edition of the official People's Daily that is distributed only among a select group of Communist Party cadres, according to CPJ sources. The report, which characterized the irrigation project as a "political project for the sake of leaders' promotion in Yuncheng," was also sent to the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee, the party's internal investigative unit.
The story eventually became national news. China's leading investigative paper, the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, ran its own story on September 18, 1998. China Central Television (CCTV) aired two reports on the irrigation scandal, on October 16 and 20.
But local officials were not called to account for their actions in Yuncheng. Instead, Gao was arrested on December 4, and eventually charged with crimes including bribery, embezzlement, and pimping, according to his wife, Duan Maoying. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in a closed, one-day trial on April 28 and is being held in a prison in Qixian, Shanxi Province, according to CPJ's sources.
Gao Qinrong should be praised, not jailed
"The 20-month jailing of Gao Qinrong violates China's international commitments to respect press freedom. It also demonstrates the regime's failure to honor its own professed commitment to economic reform," said Ann Cooper, CPJ's executive director. "When journalists expose corruption and official wrongdoing, they should expect to be commended, not imprisoned."
Despite extensive Chinese media coverage of the irrigation scandal, Gao's imprisonment was a well-kept secret until this year. CNN International aired a story about Gao's case on March 14, 2000, and since then the Inter Press Service news agency and the Hong Kong-based daily South China Morning Post have covered the case in detail. But there has been no official response to the dozens of appeals made by Gao from his prison cell.
In one of his appeals to the leadership of the Communist Party, Gao wrote, "Fighting against corruption is a decision made by the Party Central Committee, so being a party member and a journalist, I feel it is my duty to report people's grievances" (translated by the Inter Press Service).
Taking Gao's case into account, 19 journalists were imprisoned in China at the end of 1999, according to CPJ research--making China the world's leading jailer of journalists.
"There are no legitimate grounds for jailing any reporter because of his work, much less one whose work represents the highest ideals of journalism," Cooper said. "We call on President Jiang Zemin to order Gao's immediate release."