Jailed journalist asks United Nations for justice

New York, October 2, 2001—After trying unsuccessfully for three years to secure his release from prison, Gao Qinrong, a reporter for the official Xinhua News Agency, has asked the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR) to intercede with the Chinese government on his behalf.

Gao has been imprisoned since 1998 on trumped-up charges stemming from an exposé he wrote on a corruption scandal in northern China.

A copy of Gao’s letter to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, dated September 8, was provided to CPJ by sources in China.

Three years ago, Gao reported that a much touted irrigation system in drought-plagued Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, was actually an elaborate scam. The Yuncheng Daily reported that local officials had built 67,000 water tanks in just six months, but Gao discovered that these cisterns were not connected to any water source, and that no pipes carried water to irrigate the fields.

Gao’s article appeared in the May 27, 1998, internal edition of the official People’s Daily and was also sent to the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee, the party’s internal investigative unit, according to CPJ sources.

China’s leading investigative paper, Southern Weekend, and China Central Television both covered the story, which became national news.

Despite this media attention, local officials in Yuncheng were not disciplined for their wrongdoing. Instead, police arrested Gao on December 4, 1998. He was eventually charged with crimes including bribery, embezzlement, and pimping. On April 28, 1999, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a closed, one-day trial.

“The Chinese government has pledged to root out corruption, but journalists who expose official wrongdoing often face harassment, censorship, or even arrest,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Gao Qinrong was jailed for doing his job as a journalist and should be released immediately.”

Gao in prison despite domestic support
In his letter to Robinson, Gao wrote, “Many people from all over the country have written to… the Party Central Committee and concerned government organizations to ask them to punish those involved in corruption and to release me. But there has been no response.”

Gao has received support from several members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of the National People’s Congress, which issued a motion at this year’s parliamentary meeting urging the Central Discipline Committee and Supreme People’s Court to reopen his case.

Despite such appeals, no progress has been made.

Though senior government officials have encouraged the local media to help the Communist Party to root out corruption, journalists who have pursued sensitive stories remain vulnerable to persecution. Jiang Weiping, a Dalian-based journalist, was arrested in December 2000 after writing several stories for the Hong Kong-based Frontline (Qianshao) magazine that uncovered corruption scandals in northeast China. He was later charged with “revealing state secrets.” Jiang was secretly tried on September 5, but no verdict has been announced, according to CPJ sources.