CPJ calls on Chinese government to release imprisoned journalists

March 12, 2003, New York—On the eve of a major leadership change in Beijing, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls on the Chinese government to release all journalists who have been jailed for their work. China currently holds 39 journalists in prison, making the country the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fourth year in a row. While CPJ’s records include cases from as far back as 1983, the majority of arrests have been made during the last three years.

During the National People’s Congress meetings, which began on March 5 and conclude on March 18, new leaders will be appointed to several of the top posts in the Chinese government. Throughout the meetings, China’s leaders, including Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao, have vowed to fight corruption and resolve escalating rural and labor unrest. However, several journalists have been imprisoned in recent years for uncovering and reporting on corruption, and Hu and others have failed to offer any guarantees that journalists who independently investigate official corruption and other sensitive topics will not be persecuted.

“CPJ calls on the Chinese government to release immediately all those imprisoned for their journalistic work,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “As a new generation of leaders takes power in China, they must allow the people to express themselves freely.”

Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees “freedom of speech [and] of the press,” and the government has signed, but not ratified, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet China’s leaders have routinely violated these commitments in practice. In addition to tightly controlling all domestic media, the government uses the threat of imprisonment to silence critical voices—whether they advocate political reform, expose official corruption, or criticize environmental policies.

The official response to independent reporting is often draconian: Two journalists on CPJ’s list of journalists imprisoned in China, Chen Renjie and Wu Shishen, are serving life sentences, and another, Lin Youping, was sentenced to death with reprieve in 1983. Eleven people are currently serving sentences of more than 10 years for their journalistic work.

With China’s notoriously opaque political and judicial systems, it is very difficult to obtain accurate and up-to-date information about imprisoned journalists. Once detainees enter the prison system, they often disappear from the world’s radar screen, forgotten by the international community.

Despite repeated requests from CPJ for details about the legal status of the imprisoned journalists, the Chinese government has not provided any information. Three of the journalists on CPJ’s list—Hu Liping of the Beijing Daily; Ma Tao of the China Health Education News; and free-lancer Wang Yingzheng—have all served their sentences, but CPJ has been unable to confirm their releases.

Endangering “national security” lands journalists in jail
The Chinese government routinely uses national security charges to imprison journalists who cover unsanctioned topics. The vast majority of the journalists on our list (25 out of 39) have been charged with “counter-revolutionary” crimes or subversion. A number of Chinese laws cover national security crimes, but none of the legislation offers a clear definition of what constitutes “state secrets” or “subversion,” making journalists vulnerable to prosecution.

Jiang Weiping, a 2001 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2002 on charges of both “revealing state secrets” and “subversion” after reporting on local corruption scandals in northeast China for a Hong Kong magazine. He has appealed his sentence, but the case is still pending.

Most imprisoned journalists in China have been denied even the most basic due process rights, with prosecutions blatantly violating domestic law. The Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that a court must pronounce judgment within six weeks after accepting a case. However, five journalists who were tried in 2001 are still awaiting sentencing. Huang Qi, an Internet publisher charged with subversion, was tried in August 2001, but more than 18 months later no verdict has been announced. Yang Zili, Zhang Honghai, Xu Wei, and Jin Haike were charged with subversion for their online writings supporting political reform and were tried in September 2001. They are still awaiting their verdicts.

In recent years, the Internet has offered journalists new opportunities to publish and distribute independent news and opinion. As part of an ongoing crackdown on online speech, authorities are increasingly targeting Internet publishers or writers for arrest. Fifteen of the 39 imprisoned journalists were arrested for publishing or distributing information online.

For detailed background about the 39 journalists currently imprisoned in China, please click here.