Yu, deputy editor-in-chief and general manager of Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), and Li, the newspaper’s former editor, were detained less than a month after the newspaper reported a suspected SARS case in Guangzhou, the first case since the epidemic died out in July 2003. Their imprisonment was followed in March 2004 by the jailing of Nanfang Dushi Bao former editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong, who was held for five months.
The arrests appeared to be a part of a crackdown on the newspaper, which became popular for its aggressive investigative reporting on social issues and wrongdoing by local officials. The paper broke news that a 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, along with a change in national laws on detention.
On March 19, 2004, Dongshan District Court in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, sentenced Yu to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. Li, who also served on the Communist Party Committee of the newspaper’s parent group Nanfang Daily Group, was sentenced to 11 years on bribery charges. In an appellate trial held in June 2004, Li’s sentence was reduced to six years in prison, while Yu’s sentence was reduced to eight years.
According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Yu was convicted of embezzling 580,000 yuan (US$70,000) and distributing the money to members of the paper’s editorial committee. The court also accused Yu of paying Li a total of 800,000 yuan (US$97,000) in bribes while Li was editor of Nanfang Dushi Bao. Li was accused of accepting bribes totaling 970,000 (US$117,000).
Both men maintained that the money was acquired legally and was distributed in routine bonus payments to the staff. Chinese journalists familiar with the case have told CPJ that evidence presented in court did not support the corruption charges.
In 2005, Cheng was named the recipient of the 2005 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. He was not permitted to attend, but in his acceptance statement he asked to share the honor with Li and Yu: “Your suffering is the shame of China,” he said. Later that year, more than 2,000 journalists in China signed an open letter to the Guangdong High People’s Court appealing for the release of Yu and Li. Observers could remember no precedent in this show of support.
Yu’s wife told CPJ that she travels monthly to Beijing to petition for the release of her husband.