Two editors sentenced to lengthy prison terms

New York, March 22, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned by the recent arrests of three editors of the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News).

On Friday, March 19, the Dongshan District Court in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, sentenced Yu Huafeng, Nanfang Dushi Bao deputy editor-in-chief and general manager, to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. Li Minying, former editor of Nanfang Dushi Bao, was sentenced to 11 years for bribery in a related case. Li also served on the Communist Party Committee of the Nanfang Daily Group, the newspaper’s parent company,

Also on March 19, at about 3:00 a.m., public security officials from Guangzhou arrested Nanfang Dushi Bao Editor-in-Chief Cheng Yizhong while he was visiting Sichuan Province. He was brought back to Guangdong and is currently detained in the Number One Detention Center in Guangzhou. He is being held on suspicion of corruption. Officials also searched his home in Guangzhou and confiscated a number of publications and books about Chinese politics, according to CPJ sources.

Nanfang Dushi Bao has become very popular in recent years for its aggressive investigative reporting on social issues and wrongdoing by local officials. The paper broke news that college student Sun Zhigang was beaten to death in March 2003 while being held in police custody in Guangzhou. Public outcry over Sun’s death led to the arrest of several local government and police officials.

Friday’s arrest marks the second time that Cheng has been detained this year. On January 6, 2004, authorities detained Cheng from the paper’s offices and interrogated him about the paper’s financial activities. He was released eight hours later.

Journalists at the newspaper suspected that Cheng’s detention in January was linked to the newspaper’s reporting about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and other politically sensitive issues. On December 26, 2003, the Nanfang Dushi Bao reported a suspected SARS case in Guangzhou, the first new case in China since the epidemic died out in July 2003. The government had not yet publicly released information about the case when the newspaper’s report was published.

On January 14, 2004, the official, English-language China Daily reported that Yu had also been detained on suspicion of financial irregularities.

According to a March 19 report in the official Xinhua News Agency, Yu was convicted for embezzling 580,000 yuan (US$70,000) and distributing it to members of the paper’s editorial committee. The court also accused Yu of paying Li a total of 800,000 yuan (US$97,000) in bribes while Li was editor of Nanfang Dushi Bao. Li was accused of accepting bribes totaling 970,000 (US$117,000).

Both men maintain that the money under question was acquired legally and was considered routine bonuses handed out to staff. Chinese journalists familiar with the case have told CPJ that evidence presented in court did not support the charges of corruption. Yu and Li have said they will appeal the ruling.

“The harsh sentences handed down to Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, and the arrest of Cheng Yizhong, appear to be part of a targeted campaign to silence one of China’s most independent newspapers,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “China’s leaders must ensure that charges of corruption are not misused against journalists who expose official wrongdoing.”

In recent years, government authorities have made moves to consolidate control over the Nanfang Daily Group, which owns a number of China’s most independent and popular newspapers, including Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) and Ershiyi Shiji Jingji Baodao (21st Century Economic Herald). In March 2003, the Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu Baodao (21st Century World Herald), also owned by the Nanfang Daily Group, was closed after it ran a series of sensitive stories, including an interview with a former secretary of Mao Zedong who called for political reforms.