Obama should press Chinese for release of jailed journalists

November 11, 2009 

Barack Obama 
President of the United States 
The White House 
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, D.C. 20500 
Via facsimile: +1 202.456.2461
Dear President Obama:

We are heartened by news reports that you plan to talk to Chinese leaders about human rights and related issues when you visit the country next week. On World Press Freedom Day in May, you specifically raised the cases of two of China’s jailed journalists—Shi Tao, imprisoned for allegedly “leaking state secrets,” and Hu Jia, behind bars for alleged “incitement to subvert state power.” Both men remain jailed, and we ask that you now press for their immediate release.

China remains one of the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with at least 26 currently behind bars for doing their jobs, according to CPJ research. Most of these journalists worked online, publishing independent news and opinion on local or overseas Web sites, often working freelance, without the support of a mainstream media organization. Lawyers representing China’s jailed journalists complain of irregularities in the prosecution of their clients, including prolonged detentions without charge. Over half of the cases involve journalists who were jailed on vague anti-state charges such as revealing state secrets or the intent to subvert state power.

Shi and Hu are emblematic of the plight of a broad spectrum of jailed journalists in China:

Shi Tao became known internationally after he was sentenced to a 10-year prison term in 2005 and had his appeal rejected without a hearing. Shi, a former editorial director at Dangdai Shang Bao newspaper, was charged with “providing state secrets to foreigners” by sending an e-mail on his Yahoo account to the U.S.-based editor of the Web site Minzhu Luntan (Democracy Forum). The high-profile case gained international attention when court documents revealed that Yahoo had supplied information to Chinese authorities that helped them identify Shi as the sender. Shi’s e-mail contained local propaganda department instructions to his newspaper on how to cover the Falun Gong organization and the anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. CPJ honored Shi with an International Press Freedom Award the same year.

Hu Jia was sent to prison for comments he made during two interviews with foreign media, among other reasons. A prominent human rights activist and essayist who advocated for AIDS patients and the environment, Hu was jailed on December 27, 2007. He was charged with “incitement to subvert state power” for six online articles and the two interviews, in which he criticized the Communist Party and called for democratic reform. On April 3, 2008, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Hu’s wife, human rights activist Zeng Jinyan, and infant daughter have been under heavy police surveillance since his arrest and are frequently unable to leave the house or receive visitors. Requests for medical parole for Hu, who suffers from chronic liver disease, have been refused.

China faces other press freedom concerns. They include stiffening punishments for Chinese citizens interviewed by foreign journalists and increased pressure on Chinese employees of foreign news organizations. In February, the government forbade Chinese journalists from using their own bylines when working for foreign news outlets. The government also instructed Chinese journalists working for foreign media to feed their employers positive stories. Though the new guidelines did not include specific penalties, the message has had a chilling effect. Foreign journalists investigating stories with a potentially anti-government slant told CPJ they were increasingly anxious about repercussions for both their local colleagues and sources.

We hope that during your four-day visit to China you and your staff will raise the plight of jailed journalists and press for the release of Shi and Hu and the other imprisoned Chinese journalists. We also hope that you will engage with China’s leaders to encourage them to embrace freedom of expression, a hallmark of democratic societies.

Thank you for your attention to these matters.


Joel Simon 

Executive Director 

Paul E. Steiger