Special Procedures Branch
1211 Geneva 10
Fax: +41 22 917 9006
21 September 2006
Communication to the United Nations Special Procedures
For the attention of:
Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Chairperson of the Working Group on arbitrary detention
Mr. Leandro Despouy, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers
Mr. Ambeyi Ligabo, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression
RE: The arbitrary detention and sentencing of journalist Ching Cheong following an unfair trial, as well as restrictions to the freedom of expression in China
This letter has been written to respectfully request the Special Procedures to take immediate action with regard to the situation of journalist Ching Cheong and concerning the series of restrictions of press freedom and the freedom of expression that have recently been put in place in China.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association writes to condemn several restrictions to press freedoms that have recently been put in place by the Central Government of Beijing, which we condemn in their own right, but also because we believe that they directly or indirectly jeopardize press freedoms in Hong Kong.
The first attempt at suppression of the freedom of the press is the Central Government’s pending enactment of a law to restrict the press’ ability to conduct on-the-spot news reporting. According to the bill, reporters will no longer be allowed to report the news without approval from the local government. Failure to comply with this would result in the reporter being fined.
Beyond the obvious violations of the freedom of expression that this represents, if this bill becomes law, journalists will no longer be able to perform their duties to the best of their abilities, which will likely cause delays in informing the public about accidents and disasters like SARS, avian flu or contamination of water and such-like, which could contribute further to human suffering and potentially widespread casualties.
The second action that we would like to bring to the attention of the Special Procedures, and concerning which action is urged, is the fact that the State-run Xinhua News Agency has re-formulated restriction rules concerning foreign news agencies’ dissemination of news services. This set of new rules also applies to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan news agencies and other news and information releasing entities. In fact, these new rules have already been criticized by the Presidency of the European Union and the United States government.
According to the new rules, Xinhua is allowed to censor any reports distributed in China. If the content of the reports endanger national security, sabotage national unification or promote cults, then Xinhua has the power to delete such forbidden content. Of course, broad and ill-defined terms such as ‘endangering national security’ and the like are open to abuse and present an opportunity for Xinhua to greatly curtail the freedom of information and therefore the freedoms of expression and of the press.
A further measure that limits the press’ ability to function is the recently establishment of the corps of official spokespersons system. According to President Xiao Yang of the Supreme People’s Court, judges and other court staff-members are not allowed to give media interviews or comment on important and sensitive issues to the press. He has claimed that this system can enhance the transparency of the judicial system. However, in our view, this greatly limits the press’ access to information and further isolates courts and the judicial system from public scrutiny, undermining any attempts at transparency and independence of the judiciary and judicial processes. Under such a system, the press can only get information from official spokespersons. Furthermore the spokespersons have the power to censor information, in particular that deemed to involve national and commercial secrets or individual privacy matters. As you may appreciate, this allows a wide range of court cases to be covered by such censorship. We believe that this system will only increase the bureaucracy and censorship, not improve the transparency or independence of the judiciary. We suggest that the central Government should allow all cases to be heard in the open court instead of just setting up the corps of official spokespersons system, in order to enhance the transparency of the judicial system…
In fact, the judicial system of China is again under fire as a result of its treatment of the case of veteran journalist Mr. Ching Cheong, the chief China correspondent for the Singapore Straits Times, who has been sentenced by the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court to five years imprisonment, having been charged with espionage offences. Mr. Ching Cheong was detained by the State Security Bureau in April last year. He was detained without adequate access to family members or legal representation for more than a year, until his trial finally began on August 15th, 2006. During the 16 months period of pre-trial detention, Mr. Ching Cheong was not allowed to choose his own legal adviser freely and was not given sufficient access to his lawyer in order to prepare his defence. In addition, throughout his detention, his family members were not allowed to visit him frequently and were not allowed to attend the court hearing, which was conducted in camera. Furthermore, it is understood that the trial itself was conducted in a summary manner, lasting only one day. Mr. Ching Cheong’s conviction should therefore be considered a travesty of justice.
Mr. Ching Cheong had only been performing his responsibilities as a foreign correspondent, following up on stories and verifying sources, as he had done throughout his career. What makes Mr. Ching Cheong so highly regarded as an international reporter is not only that his stories have bridged the gap between China and Singapore, but in many instances his stories have bridged the gap between China and the rest of the world. Therefore, when he was being accused of spying, many people including celebrities, politicians, academics, friends and journalists have come forward to testify about his upright character.
It is our view that in Mr. Ching Cheong’s case, the State Security Bureau and the judiciary have grievously violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which stipulates that anyone who is arrested shall be brought promptly and within a reasonable time to open trial, and that adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence by counsel must be given.
Furthermore, the definitions of espionage and state secrets are so ambiguous in Chinese Criminal Law, that responsible journalists and citizens can easily violate this law unintentionally. This seriously jeopardizes the freedom of the press. We strongly urge the Chinese government, which signed the ICCPR, to implement the provisions of the Covenant so that every case can be heard in a fair, just and open manner.
We hereby kindly request the Special Procedures to intervene with the concerned authorities and ensure that Mr. Ching Cheong is released in the absence of valid legal charges against him or be tried in a open and transparent manner, with adequate access to the legal representation of his choosing, before an independent court, in a trial that meets international standards for fair trail. Furthermore, the Chinese authorities must be urged to abandon all measures that limit or violate the freedoms of expression and of the press. We recall that under Article 35 of the Constitution of China, every citizen has the rights to press freedom and the freedom of expression.
Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require further information concerning these matters.
Chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association
Christopher Warren , President of the International Federation of Journalists
Reporters Without Borders
World Press Freedom Committee