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CPJ calls for immediate release of journalist being held on suspicion of espionage

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 31 May 2005 CPJ press release:

China detains senior Hong Kong journalist

New York, May 31, 2005 - The Chinese Foreign Ministry revealed today that it has detained senior Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong on suspicion of espionage.

In a statement released to reporters and published in international news reports, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that it has been holding Ching since April 22 and that the journalist is now in Beijing. The statement also said that Ching has "admitted that in recent years he has been following the instructions of overseas intelligence organizations and has undertaken intelligence collecting activities."

The Foreign Ministry provided no evidence for the allegation and did not clarify for which country the journalist was suspected of spying.

Ching, the chief China correspondent for the Singapore daily Straits Times, was detained in Guangzhou. He had planned to meet an unknown source who had agreed to provide him with an unfinished book manuscript of interviews with former Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang, according to Ching's wife Mary Lau.

Last week, after learning privately from a mainland government official that her husband would be charged with "stealing core state secrets," Lau decided to go public with the news of her husband's detention, according to the Washington Post. Though Lau and the Straits Times have known since April that Ching was detained, they were warned by authorities not to report the detention, and stayed silent in an effort to obtain his release through diplomatic means, the Post reported.

Lau has spoken to her husband several times since he was detained, but said that she has not yet received an official letter informing her of the government's allegations. She believes that Ching's detention was related to his investigations into Zhao, according to local and international reports.

Zhao, who died in January, was ousted from the Communist Party after opposing the government's use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Last year, Ching was the first reporter to obtain the memoir of Zong Fengming, a retired official and associate of Zhao Ziyang, in which he referred to his extensive interviews with the deposed leader, according to the Washington Post. Zong told the Post that authorities had pressured him not to publish a book of his interviews with Zhao.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan denied that Ching's detention was related to his efforts to gain access to the interviews conducted by Zong. "I can tell you plainly that Ching's case is not connected to Zhao Ziyang at all . . . The key thing is that Ching himself admitted to his illegal activities," said Kong, according to Reuters.

The Straits Times responded today to the Foreign Ministry's allegation, saying, "We are shocked by this new accusation. As we have stated in our press statements, we have no cause to doubt that in all the years that Ching Cheong has worked with us, he has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism."

"China has a terrible record of using national security laws to punish journalists for reporting politically sensitive material," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "We are disturbed by the detention of our colleague Ching without evidence of wrongdoing, and call for his immediate release."

Ching has been a reporter for the Singapore daily since 1996. He was formerly a reporter for Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper with links to the Communist Party. In 1989, he handed in his resignation along with 40 colleagues to protest the government's military crackdown at Tiananmen Square, according to the Post.

Ching, who holds a British overseas national passport and is a legal resident of Singapore, is the second foreign newspaper journalist to be detained within a year - the first being New York Times researcher Zhao Yan. China was the world's leading jailer of journalists for the sixth consecutive year in 2004. Most of the forty-two journalists imprisoned at year's end were held under national security or subversion laws.

CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit http://www.cpj.org

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