China: Journalists imprisoned after reporting on land disputes

New York, January 19, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the long jail sentences given to two journalists who reported on rural unrest in China’s southeast province of Zhejiang. Zhu Wanxiang and Wu Zhengyou were convicted of illegal publishing, fraud, and extortion after covering land disputes, and sentenced on January 17.

“We are deeply concerned for our colleagues and call for their immediate release,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “But we are also gravely concerned about what their imprisonment says about the Chinese media. The fact that journalists are prevented from reporting on such critical matters of public interest as rural unrest makes clear that the Chinese government remains fully committed to a policy of information control.”

State media said the journalists were detained in August 2005 after they forged journalist accreditation and illegally published a magazine, called New China Youth, without proper registration. On December 28, 2005, the two were tried along with five colleagues at the Liandu district court in the city of Lishui, Zhejiang Province. Zhu was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Wu received a six-year sentence, according to news reports. The others were also found guilty, and it is unclear whether they will be punished.

State news agency Xinhua reported that the journalists were charged with extorting money from rural villagers and government officials while reporting on land disputes and a violent protest in Lishui city in May. They were also convicted of illegally raising funds for the magazine, according to news reports.

Under the Chinese system of licensing and accreditation journalists can be jailed for reporting without government supervision. Journalists are required to seek official certification, and publications must register with government agencies before they report news. Illegal publishing is common, and rules barring it are unevenly enforced.

Protests over land disputes are increasingly common in China, and news and information about rural unrest is guarded closely by local officials and the central government. Last month, the government removed the editors of the daily Beijing News after they reported independently on rural protests. In September 2005, activist and writer Guo Feixiong was jailed for several months for advocating for residents of southern China’s Taishi village involved in a recall campaign of a local elected official.

China was the leading jailer of journalists in 2005 for the seventh consecutive year with 32 behind bars, according to CPJ research.