China is notorious for censoring everything from books to the internet to art, ranking 173 out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index. While social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been blocked for years, new government measures attack some of the country’s last bastions of free speech.
Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter, and the comments sections of various websites have become salons for social and political discourse in the highly-monitored country. But the Chinese government’s recent campaign against so-called ‘malicious rumour-mongering online’ seeks to end such dialogue. Hundreds of microbloggers have already been arrested and detained on charges of ‘concocting and spreading false claims.’ Under new laws, if someone posts a slanderous message that is then forwarded more than 500 times or read more than 5,000 times, they could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Additionally, ‘causing negative international influence, harming the state’s image and severely endangering national interests, inciting ethnic and religious conflicts, and initiating mass incidents’ are seen as ‘severely harming social order and national interests,’ and therefore punishable by law.
Coming from a society where people tweets and Facebook their every waking thought and movement , it is incredibly difficult to imagine such stringent restrictions on the expression of personal opinions and beliefs. For many, ourselves included, criticism of the government is essential to provoking change.
There are journalists in China who feel the same, but who risk arrest by acting on their convictions. Such is the case with Chen Yongzhou, a journalist for Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express.
After publishing a series of reports revealing the underhanded business dealings of a construction company partially owned by the government and with many government affiliations, Chen was detained by police last week for ‘damage to business reputation.’
While such arrests are all too commonplace in China, the response from Chen’s newspaper was nothing short of extraordinary.
Risking the safety and careers of its staff, as well as the future of the publication, The New Express published a front page plea: Please Release Him. In the article that followed, the paper wrote:
We have always believed that if we just go out and responsibly do our reporting, there won’t be any problem; and if by chance there are problems, we can print corrections in the newspaper, and apologise. And if things are really serious, we prepare for the courtroom – and if we lose, we pay compensation as it’s demanded. If we must close our doors, well then, that’s only what we deserve. But the facts show that we have been too naive. When, after three days and three nights [in custody], Chen Yongzhou finally got to see a lawyer, he said he could hold out for another 30 days — longer than that, he dare not say.
He tried to weep but there were no tears.
It must be said that we exercised extreme restraint in dealing with this attack [on our paper] — for five mornings last week, after he was taken away, we didn’t make a sound. Last Saturday, we said nothing. On Sunday, we said nothing. On Monday, we said nothing. Yesterday still, we said nothing.
Why? Because we thought all along that the safety of our lively colleague was the most important thing, and if we could get him back through forbearance and working under the table, this was worth it. We hope readers, and especially our colleagues [in journalism], will forgive us for these decisions, which were so unrighteous, which showed such lack of revolutionary dedication and courage. We were truly cowardly, selfish and shameful.
We have diligently studied all 15 of the reports Chen Yongzhou wrote about Zoomlion, but could only find that we mistakenly wrote what should have been “advertising and entertainment fees of 513 million” as “advertising fees of 513 million.” If Brother Policeman can find any evidence of shabby reporting on our part, please make notice of it and we will gladly doff our hat. Because we still believe that — some day, at least — you will have the same full respect for the law that we have.
Our newspaper may be small, but at least we have a backbone.
The staff of The New Express have taken journalistic integrity to the highest degree, standing not only by their work but by their colleague. A rough translation of the full plea can be found here thanks to the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.