Dear President Obama:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to you in advance of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States in January to urge you to raise press freedom issues during your talks. We ask that you make clear the depth of U.S. concern that China is the world's leading jailer of journalists.
Obama and Hu in 2010. (Reuters)
During your visit to China in November 2009, at a town hall meeting, you defended the right of people to freely access information, saying that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. In a follow-up speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called that belief in the free flow of information a "ground truth" for the United States.
With at least 34 journalists and commentators imprisoned in China, the nation shares with Iran the dishonor of being the world's worst jailer of journalists, CPJ's most recent survey shows. In addition to the well-known case of imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the number of journalists behind bars was propelled by the jailing of Uighur and Tibetan journalists covering ethnic issues and regional unrest.
Liu's case is indicative of the pressures journalists working online face in China. During the 2009 trial that resulted in his 11-year conviction on charges of inciting subversion against the state, prosecutors cited articles he had published on overseas websites. Vague anti-state allegations were used to imprison more than half the 34 journalists CPJ documented in Chinese jails on December 1, 2010. Within that group, 25 worked online.
China's record of imprisoning its domestic critics is not improving--the disproportionate targeting of Uighur and Tibetan writers by Chinese authorities began with the unrest in their respective regions in 2008 and 2009. Journalists from these ethnic minorities account for all but one of 13 arrests recorded in 2009 and 2010. Information about their trials is censored and in many cases their whereabouts and legal status are not confirmed.
Beyond imprisonment, we note with concern other recent signs of a persistent anti-information stance from China's central government:
Since April 2010, Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office, told the standing committee of the National People's Congress that the office plans to step up online propaganda and legal checks on the Internet--a plan not announced publicly and later deleted from online accounts, according to New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China.
Strengthened state secrets law
Revisions to ill-defined state secrets laws took effect in October 2010. Authorities retained the power to retroactively classify information already in the public domain, leaving journalists and activists vulnerable to prosecution for published articles. The revisions to the law require telecommunications companies to intervene to restrict the transmission of state secrets. This could lead to cases like that of journalist Shi Tao, whose 2005 10-year imprisonment for leaking secrets abroad was based on e-mail account information provided to Chinese police by Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary. He had sent overseas propaganda department news directives, which were retroactively classified, according to CPJ research.
Sanctions against professional journalists
Economic Observer Senior Web Editor Zhang Hong was suspended, and Bao Yueyang, chief editor and publisher of the China Economic Times was reshuffled to a different post in 2010, according to CPJ research. Zhang had publicly signed a controversial editorial; Bao had published an investigative report.
Even while independent viewpoints are heavily penalized, Chinese media are evolving and strengthening. Chinese officials increasingly acknowledge domestic journalists' rights to work freely, according to a CPJ report in 2010. The General Administration of Press and Publication, a state agency that regulates print media, is outwardly supportive of rights for Chinese journalists operating within the officially sanctioned media. In 2010, its website showed support for journalists who had been physically menaced for negative coverage: "News organizations have the right to know, interview, cover, criticize, and monitor events regarding national and public interest." With support from Hu, these statements could develop into something more than empty rhetoric.
We note that in November 2009, your interview with a reporter from Southern Weekly, an aggressive news outlet based in Guangzhou, sent a powerful message to the Chinese people that you support a more independent media.
We urge you to build on these efforts and reiterate to Hu that to truly support journalists' rights he must intervene to release the 34 journalists being held in China's prisons and prevent the continued use of anti-state charges against journalists, including independent freelancers. China must allow free and independent news reporting to continue to engage productively with the U.S.