Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning was released today after serving a 10-year prison term on charges of “incitement to subvert state power,” a case built in good part on client information supplied by Yahoo. Wang had used his Yahoo email account and the discussion forum Yahoo Groups to spread ideas the government deemed dangerous. His case closely parallels that of journalist Shi Tao, another Yahoo user who fell afoul of the Chinese government. In 2005, Shi was convicted of “illegally leaking state secrets abroad” and given a 10-year sentence. Yahoo had helped authorities identify Shi through his account information.
Shi, an editor for the newspaper Dangdai Shang Bao in Hunan province, had used his Yahoo account to send notes about the local propaganda department’s instructions on how to cover the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The notes were sent to the editor of a U.S.-based news website. The propaganda department’s predictably restrictive directive was declared a state secret only after that fact. But Shi had been on the government’s surveillance radar for a while. He had written essays calling for political reform, which were posted on overseas news websites that were banned in China. (Click here for an example of his essays translated in English, and here to see a transcript of the email containing the content of the government propaganda directive.)
Just as Wang served out his full sentence, it seems likely Shi may spend his entire term in jail, despite legal appeals by his family. In February 2005, authorities in Shanghai suspended the law license of Guo Guoting, a defense attorney who represented Shi journalists Zhang Lin and Huang Jinqiu.
In 2005, CPJ honored Shi with an International Press Freedom Award.
One positive result has come from Shi’s ordeal. After Yahoo came under heavy international criticism for handing over client information to Chinese authorities, the Internet and telecommunications industries began to address their legal and ethical responsibilities in such cases. In 2008, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google helped launch the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a group of industry leaders, academics, and defenders of human rights and press freedom that seeks to protect privacy and freedom of expression worldwide. GNI has made progress in ensuring that the companies that increasingly make up the backbone of news distribution protect their clients’ rights to free expression and privacy.
China continues to jail journalists. Although cases like that of Shi, a critical mainstream journalist, have not been common in recent years, ethnic minority journalists have become a particularly vulnerable group. Of the 27 journalists jailed in China when CPJ conducted its most recent worldwide census, in December 2011, more than half were ethnic Uighur or Tibetan journalists.
Most of them worked online.