New York, August 30, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release of Cheng Yizhong, editor-in-chief of Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), who was freed on August 27 after more than five months in detention. His colleagues, Nanfang Dushi Bao Deputy Editor-in-Chief and General Manager Yu Huafeng and former editor Li Minying, remain imprisoned.
“Cheng Yizhong was clearly targeted for his paper’s brave and aggressive reporting, and his release ends a terrible injustice against him,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “However, we remain deeply concerned about the continued imprisonment of Yu Huafeng and Li Minying, and we call for their immediate and unconditional release.”
Cheng appears to be in good health and has returned home, according to CPJ sources and international news reports. It is unclear whether he will be allowed to return to work. Some sources have suggested that Cheng may be under house arrest, but CPJ has been unable to confirm this information.
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.
The same day, the Dongshan District Court in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, sentenced Yu to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. Li Minying 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.
In an appeal trial held on June 7, 2004, Li’s sentence was reduced to six years in prison, while Yu’s sentence was reduced to eight years.
Editors targeted for tough reporting
Under Cheng’s leadership, Nanfang Dushi Bao has become very popular in recent years for its aggressive investigative reporting. CPJ believes that authorities have targeted the paper for coverage that showed local officials in a negative light. Specifically, the paper broke news that young graphic designer 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.
In a statement released on August 27, Cheng’s lawyer Xu Zhiyong acknowledged the support of scholars, journalists, and retired officials in advocating for the editor’s release. He condemned the unjust sentence of Yu Huafeng, also his client, and denounced officials who manufacture unjust cases that “suppress freedom of expression.”
China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 43 behind bars. For more information about the press freedom situation in China, see a special report released by CPJ on August 24.