The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) remains gravely concerned by the detention of Cheng Yizhong, editor-in-chief of the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News); Yu Huafeng, Nanfang Dushi Bao deputy editor-in-chief and general manager; and Li Minying, former Nanfang Dushi Bao editor.
On March 19, Guangdong Province security agents arrested Cheng while he was visiting Sichuan Province. At the time of his arrest, authorities searched his home and confiscated a number of books and publications about Chinese politics. According to press reports, Cheng has now been formally charged with corruption. No other information about the case against Cheng was available at press time, and CPJ continues to investigate the charges against the journalist.
In a related case, on March 19, the Dongshan District Court in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, sentenced Yu to 12 years in prison 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 sentenced to 11 years for accepting bribes totaling 970,000 yuan (US$117,000). The defense maintains that the money under question was acquired legally and was considered routine bonuses handed out to staff.
Chinese legal experts associated with the Beijing-based research organization Open Constitution Initiative have argued that the charges against the journalists violate constitutional protections of private property. In March, the National People’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to own private property. Prosecutors charged that Li and Yu had embezzled “public funds,” while the defense argued that the money belonged to the newspaper and was therefore private property. Xu Zhiyong, the defense lawyer for Yu, Li, and Cheng, has also stated that all the money in question was acquired and distributed legally and “according to contractual agreements between Nanfang Dushi Bao and the Nanfang Daily Group.”
Prominent legal scholar He Weifang, of Beijing University, has condemned the charges and written that, “the courts are increasingly becoming a tool to suppress press freedom.”
CPJ believes that authorities have targeted Nanfang Dushi Bao because of recent reporting that has shown local officials in a negative light. Specifically, 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.
In December 2003, 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 6, 2004, security officials detained Cheng for eight hours and questioned him about financial irregularities at the paper. The reporter who covered the SARS case was also put “under investigation.” Yu and Li were arrested the following week. Since then, reporters at the paper have been under heightened surveillance and warned against talking to the foreign press. Journalists familiar with the case are concerned that more arrests of newspaper staff may follow.
As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ condemns this abuse of the law to silence critical voices. Such arrests of journalists undermine protections of human rights and freedom of expression that are guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution.
We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Cheng Yizhong, Yu Huafeng, and Li Minying. We also respectfully urge Your Excellency to take steps to ensure that your government no longer tolerates the arrests of journalists by local officials in retribution for their work.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your response.