Reporters Sans Security

Photo by A. Lin Neumann With the news that Singapore Straits Times journalist Ching Cheong was freed last Tuesday in time for the Lunar New Year, there were several reminders of how difficult and dangerous the journalism profession can be, particularly in Asia and especially in China. Ching’s release followed that of Li Changqing, the former editor of the Fuzhou Daily, who was freed on February 2 after completing a three-year sentence for “spreading alarmist reports.”

But, at almost the same time, Lu Gengsong, a freelance journalist who had reported critically on corrupt local Chinese officials, was given a four-year sentence for “inciting the subversion of state power” after a 10-minute trial in Hangzhou. Despite the benevolent face the Chinese government is trying to project ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the country remains the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 29 reporters imprisoned as of last December 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. China has led the world in imprisoning reporters for nine straight years. (The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres puts the total higher, at 32, with another 51 “cyber-dissidents,” or bloggers, imprisoned)

A populist who openly criticized corrupt officials, according to the CPJ, Lu had written several articles for overseas Web sites and reported on the trial of a human rights defender the day before he was arrested. Only his wife and daughter and two friends were allowed at the sentencing, his wife Wang Xue’e told the press organization. She was not allowed to speak to her husband during the brief period he was in the courtroom, she told reporters.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are ostensibly fighting for democracy against the depredations of the fundamentalist Taliban, the government is considering the death penalty for another reporter. Freelance journalist Parwez Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, because he distributed an article – which he did not even write – critical of Islam. The real reason, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers, is because his brother had written articles critical of local officials in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. RSF is circulating a petition seeking to have the death sentence quashed and to get him freed.

Over the weekend, it appeared that international pressure would sway the Afghan government to step in and at least commute Kambahkhsh’s sentence. “The process is not over yet. I doubt he will be executed,” Afghanistan’s Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, told Agence France-Presse. Also, Najib Manalai, a senior adviser in Afghanistan’s Culture Ministry was quoted in the British newspaper The Independent saying, “I am not worried for his life.”

However, Kambakhsh’s brother Yaqub Ibrahimi, another prominent Afghan reporter, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he and his family remained concerned and that messages from the Afghan authorities were conflicting. “It’s good news, and we are hopeful about these expressions,” he told CPJ in a telephone interview last week. “But Parwez Kambakhsh is still in jail and still sentenced to death. Legally, nothing has changed.”

CPJ is seeking to have the case transferred to the capital city of Kabul “and expedited through the appeals process so that he can be officially exculpated.”

As is true across the world, local journalists bear the brunt of the violence and killing. In 2007, at least four other journalists died in Afghanistan, including Zakia Zaki in Parwan province, north of the capital of Kabul, who was shot through her bedroom window. Zaki, 35, had been threatened repeatedly for running a private news radio station, Sada-i-Sulh (Peace Radio), since 2001, covering women’s issues, human rights, education and local politics. Local warlords prior to the killing had warned her to shut the station down. Many other reporters have gone into hiding for their own safety.

Across the world, at least 65 journalists died on the job in 2007, the highest death toll since 1994, when 66 died amid conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia and Rwanda, according to CPJ. Iraq led the world for the fifth straight year, with 32 journalists killed. Somalia was second with seven. The press advocacy organization is investigating another 23 deaths in to attempt to determine if they were related to the journalism profession.

About seven of every 10 deaths suffered by reporters were murders, with combat-related deaths and deaths on dangerous assignments accounting for the rest. Five reporters were killed in Pakistan during 2007, bringing the total there to 12 since Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in 2002. Pearl’s death remains the only one to be investigated thoroughly. Another 15 reporters were abducted during the period, with the government’s own Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence suspected in many of the cases. In Sri Lanka, another five reporters were killed and many were threatened; two were murdered in the Philippines

Ching Cheong was sentenced to five years for allegedly spying for Taiwan in August 2006, following a one-day trial that took place more than a year after he was arrested in April 2005. The state news agency Xinhua published a report claiming that Ching sold business, political and military information to Taiwanese agents for millions of dollars between 2000 and 2005.

The holder of a British National Overseas passport, Ching was freed on parole in Guangzhou after serving more than 1,000 days on spying charges that most critics said were trumped up. He was lured across the border with a promise of access to secret memoirs written by former Communist party boss Zhao Ziyang, who was deposed after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. He had worked for a pro-communist newspaper in Hong Kong prior to 1989 and had been a supporter of Zhao, who died in January 2005.

The “spying organization” to which Ching was tied is the Chung Hua Euro-Asia Foundation of Taiwan, which Beijing says is led by Taiwan’s National Security Bureau. The Foundation’s deputy CEO, Xie Hong-yi and Director of Planning, Dai Dong-qing, were called agents of the Taiwanese, an allegation that has been challenged by Reporters Sans Frontières. Xie allegedly induced Ching to send him pictures of the Chinese Navy’s visit to Hong Kong.

"Ching should never have been arrested and imprisoned," Reporters Sans Frontieres said. "His release is very welcome, especially as it will allow him to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family, but he is still not completely free. The Chinese government should continue down this road by releasing, before the start of the Olympic Games, all of the 32 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents who are currently held."