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GOVERNMENT CONTINUES ITS PRE-OLYMPIC CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT

There was real reason to celebrate during the Chinese New Year - three Chinese journalists were freed after years in prison on trumped-up charges. But officials have much further to go before fulfilling the human rights commitments they made upon being awarded the 2008 Olympics, say IFEX members.

Journalist Li Changqing, the laureate of the 2008 World Association of Newspapers (WAN) Golden Pen of Freedom, was the first to be freed on 2 February, at the end of his three-year prison sentence for "fabricating and spreading false information," reports WAN.

Li, a reporter and deputy news director of the "Fuzhou Daily" in Fuzhou City, had alerted the public to an outbreak of dengue fever in Fuzhou before the authorities had announced it.

Three days later, Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong was unexpectedly released on parole in Guangzhou, southern China. The "Singapore Strait Times" reporter had served three years of a five-year prison sentence for allegedly spying on Taiwan, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Then Yu Huafeng, the former director of the liberal Guangzhou-based newspaper "Nanfang Dushi Bao", was released on 8 February after his sentence was reduced for a third time, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Yu ended up serving four years of what was originally a 12-year sentence on corruption charges, after his outspoken newspaper published a story about a suspected SARS case in Guangzhou.

The reason for Ching's and Yu's early releases - years before their sentences were originally scheduled to end - is unclear.

According to the "Washington Post", the concession seems to have been intended to cultivate some goodwill among critics in Hong Kong and southern China, where thousands of Chinese journalists had taken up these men's causes. "Hong Kong journalists enjoy more media freedoms than their mainland counterparts, and Mr. Yu's mainland paper has a reputation for defying state censors," says the "Post".

IFEX members too, have been heavily lobbying for their freedom. The releases show that "campaigns of support for imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents can be successful," says RSF.

But any goodwill inspired by the release of these men is cancelled out by Beijing's crackdown on dissent in recent weeks. Within 24 hours of Ching's arrival home in Hong Kong, another journalist and outspoken critic of government corruption was sentenced to four years in prison for subverting the state, report CPJ and International PEN Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC).

Journalist Lu Gengsong had written several articles for overseas websites that were critical of local officials, and reported on the trial of a human rights defender the day before he was arrested.

His arrest follows that of one of the country's most prominent civil rights activists, Hu Jia, who uses blogs, webcasts and video to expose human rights abuses. Hu was arrested in December and has allegedly been charged with "inciting subversion of state power," report Human Rights Watch and RSF.

According to Human Rights Watch, state security convictions rose by almost 20 per cent between 2006 and 2007. "Charging people with 'inciting subversion' has become the weapon of choice to silence dissent ahead of the Games," says Human Rights Watch. "Hu Jia's only 'crime' was to speak honestly about the tightening chokehold on dissent ahead of the Games, and his arrest sends a stark message to other Chinese activists: lie low ahead of the Olympics or face the consequences."

WAN and RSF say that at least 30 journalists and 50 cyber-dissidents remain behind bars for doing their jobs, making China the world's biggest jailer of journalists.

IFEX members have been stepping up their campaigns, urging the Chinese government to release all journalists and political prisoners before the Summer Games.

They have been also calling on Olympic committees and world leaders to demand the release of dissidents as a condition for their attendance in Beijing in August. According to ARTICLE 19 and RSF, a British newspaper recently revealed that the British Olympic Association wants to ban British participants from commenting on any "politically sensitive issues" during the Games.

"Repression will only increase through the opening of the Games unless foreign governments, the International Olympic Committee, and national Olympic committees make it clear to China that such abuses are a threat to the success of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing," Human Rights Watch says. "International silence in the face of these Olympics-related human rights violations is tantamount to giving the Chinese government a green light to intensify its pre-Olympic crackdown."

For alerts and stories on the recently freed and jailed journalists, visit:
- IFEX China page: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/147/
- "Washington Post", "Un-Olympian effort": http://tinyurl.com/2mw5ak
Also check out IFEX member campaigns on China:
- CPJ's online petition to urge China to free imprisoned journalists: http://www.cpj.org/regions_08/asia_08/china_form2.html
- Human Rights Watch, "Beijing 2008: China's Olympian Human Rights Challenges", with special sections on how to take action and join the discussion: http://china.hrw.org/
- PEN's China campaign, "We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression: Countdown to the Beijing Olympics," including biographies of the 39 imprisoned writers: http://www.pen.org/china2008
- RSF "Beijing 2008" campaign: http://tinyurl.com/2zq2wq
- WAN's campaign for the release of Chinese journalists:
http://www.wan-press.org/china/home.php
(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

(12 February 2008)

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