Falling Short: Defending the Press

Defending the Press

Mo Shaoping, a prominent human rights lawyer based in Beijing, has represented a number of writers and editors, including the currently imprisoned journalists Zhang Lin, Lü Gengsong, and Shi Tao. In March, CPJ spoke with Mo about his work.

Have conditions for Chinese media improved since the Olympics were awarded in 2001?

Official monitoring and restrictions are, if anything, heavier than before. Many Web sites have been shut down, and there is extensive censorship. There are new [looser] media regulations for foreign journalists—but lots of foreign reporters tell me there are still problems, that lots of places don’t welcome journalists. Subversion charges are also used frequently to limit critical expression. The use of this charge has increased in the past few years.

Why are subversion charges so common?

The charges we see over and over again are subversion and violation of state secrets. They are used because the government can’t openly call free expression a crime.

Someone might have written hundreds of essays, with a total word count in the millions. And from this body of work they’ll select maybe 100 words that support the charges. For example, Lü Gengsong had written a total of 226 pieces during his career, and they selected 19 of these as “problematic.” Then they narrowed it down even further. The “proof” for the charge was based on excerpts of about 470 words—a tiny fraction of his output.

What improvements should be made for Chinese journalists?

First, there needs to be media run by the people—the people should be allowed to control what is reported. Not all media should be state-run or restricted by the government. I’d also like to abolish the use of imprecise charges such as subversion, or at least establish clear guidelines as to what such charges mean.

Police questioned human rights lawyer Teng Biao for more than 40 hours in March. Do you worry about the risks of having a high profile?

Yes. I do prepare for such risks, especially when I’m handling sensitive cases. I’m aware of the pressure that comes from appearing in court in these cases. People know our law firm, they know we’ve come from Beijing.

I’m pretty old nowadays! [Mo is 50.] I’m a generation older than a lot of the [human rights] lawyers who are working now—Gao Zhisheng and others. Things are better now than they were 10 years ago. News about what’s really happening spreads over the Internet now, which wasn’t the case before.

How did you become involved in human rights cases?

After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, there were lots of cases that lawyers just weren’t taking. Some friends were involved and they approached me for help. It doesn’t matter what someone is accused of—everyone has the right to representation. It’s possible, of course, to abuse freedom of expression and there needs to be some protection. But if writing itself is treated as a crime, that’s just not right.

What do people in China think of your work?

I mainly get two reactions. Half the time, there is a lot of admiration. People come up to me and say that they really respect what I do. But the other half—they are worried. I have a number of close friends and relatives who tell me not to push things too far, that it’s too risky. Of course, there are also lots of people in China who don’t know anything about these kinds of cases.

Press freedom cases often don’t get positive results. What’s the point in continuing?

I believe the final evaluation in these cases will be left to history.

» return to Chapter 8:
‘Secrets’ and Subversion: The Limits of Expression