Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Beijing tramples rights -- again

Beijing has detained Ching Cheong (程翔), a correspondent of Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, on the dubious charges of "stealing state secrets" and "engaging in espionage." Since the Chinese government encroaches on press freedom and tosses its own reporters into jail as a matter of course, this latest offense would not have made the news but for the fact that Ching is based in Hong Kong and works for a foreign newspaper.

Many people who hold unrealistic ideas about China often conveniently forget, or consciously choose to turn a blind eye, to its notorious violations of basic civil rights -- freedom of the press being just one of them. It should not be forgotten that in China the news media is state-controlled and is essentially a puppet, allowed to parrot government propaganda only.

Beijing's long record of arresting journalists who step out of line speaks for itself. Chinese journalists have been arrested for reporting the government cover-up of the SARS epidemic and the spread of AIDS, as well as scandals involving corrupt officials and police brutality, among others. In any democratic society, reporters who bravely stand up against the system are considered heros. In China, they get thrown in jail. It is no wonder that the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says there are more journalists in prison in China than anywhere else in the world.

As for foreign journalists based abroad or in special administrative regions of China such as Hong Kong, or who work for a foreign media outlet, Beijing does show a little more deference -- just a little -- due entirely to concerns over international pressure. Still, it is not enough to keep incidents such as the detention of Ching from occurring.

In fact, Ching's case marks the second incident of detention by the Chinese government of people working for foreign media within the past year. Zhao Yan (趙岩), a researcher working for the New York Times in Beijing, was arrested by the State Security Ministry in September of last year on similarly dubious charges and has been held incommunicado without trial since.

Of course, no one is arguing that journalists should be granted legal immunity per se just because they are reporters. But Beijing, as a matter of standard procedure, often arrests or detains journalists without charge. Even when it bothers to make an official charge, it is often dubious -- like stealing "state secrets" or engaging in "espionage activities." As for what constitutes "state secrets" or "espionage activities," the Chinese government retains the subjective and arbitrary discretion to define them. The definitions vary depending on the political needs and concerns of the government at the time.

Ching was allegedly detained to prevent the publication of secret interviews with Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the former premier who opposed the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Reportedly, Beijing feared that the publication of the manuscript might stir memories of the massacre and create resentment toward the government. But everyone already knows that the bloody crackdown was ordered by the Chinese government. What kind of "state secret" is that?

There is also the severe lack of legal due process for journalists who are detained or arrested. They are often placed in detention for a long period of time without charges being formally made, without the right to legal representation, and without any formal and open trial.

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