China: CPJ troubled by libel case against journalists reporting on Apple supplier

New York, August 30, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the filing of a defamation suit and the freezing of the assets of two journalists who investigated alleged labor abuses by a maker of Apple iPods in China.

A subsidiary of Foxconn Technology Co. Ltd of Taiwan is suing reporter Wang You and editor Weng Bao of the Shanghai-based China Business News (Diyi Caijing Ribao) for 30 million yuan (US$3.7 million) over reports of working conditions at a Foxconn-owned factory in the southern city of Shenzhen. The Intermediate People’s Court in Shenzhen has frozen the journalists’ personal assets, including real estate, cars, and bank accounts pending the defamation hearing, Chinese media reported.

“It’s outrageous that the personal possessions and assets of our colleagues have been frozen without any hearing in this case,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
“The court should consider the rights of the journalists, and their assets should be unfrozen immediately. Civil defamation suits by officials and businesses are becoming an increasingly common way to stifle investigative reporting in China, where courts do not appear independent when hearing media cases.”

The suit follows a June 15 article alleging that workers at an iPod manufacturing plant in Shenzhen were underpaid, forced to stand for long hours and to work 12-hour days. In a subsequent audit by Apple Computer, the U.S. company found evidence that Foxconn had violated its Supplier Code of Conduct including “overcrowding in some housing provided to workers, a complex pay structure overly relying on incentives, an outdated payroll system, over-worked employees and some instances of harsh treatment,” according to Apple’s online report on August 17.

But in July, Foxconn’s wholly owned subsidiary in Shenzhen, Hongfujin Precision Industry Co. filed for defamation damages of 20 million yuan from Wang, and 10 million yuan from his supervisor Weng.

Legal scholars and journalists in China have criticized the case. State-run China Business News issued a statement supporting its staff, and other Chinese newspapers have carried interviews with legal scholars who call the case “absurd.” They noted that Chinese law calls for the newspaper itself—not its employees—to be held responsible for alleged libel, and that no legal investigation had been carried out before the freezing of assets.

“Apple is working behind the scenes to help resolve this issue,” Apple spokesman Steve Dowling told CPJ today. He did not offer further comment. U.S. companies, who have come under criticism for cooperating with government attempts to stifle the media, have argued in the past that their business involvement in China advances the principles of democracy and an open media.