He has been in prison since 17 September 2004 for supposed fraud and “revealing state secrets.” The 43-year-old journalist faces execution for allegedly passing on notes to a New York Times colleague about rumours of the retirement of then-President Jiang Zemin. Current President Hu Jintao ordered an investigation of the leak. Zhao has reported on corruption in the countryside and is a handy target for the secret police.
State security agents secretly obtained a note from Zhao to the New York Times correspondent in Beijing that was not in fact about the imminent retirement of Jiang but simply about tension between him and Hu. The paper reported on 7 September 2004 that Jiang was going to resign, which he did on 19 September. It denied Zhao had been the source for this.
Zhao, an ex-reporter with the magazine Zhongguo Gaige (China Reform) who investigated conditions in the countryside, had been hired as a researcher by the New York Times. He knew he was being watched by police and felt threatened. He was arrested in a Shanghai pizzeria parlour after being traced through his mobile phone.
He is being held in Beijing, where his guards have refused him medical care and his trial keeps on being postponed. He has been mistreated during interrogation and lost more than 10 kgs but refuses to confess to any kind of treason. Despite US government pressure, the authorities refuse to let his family and journalist colleagues visit him. His arrest has spread fear among the dozens of Chinese journalists working for the increasingly numerous foreign media present in China.
Journalists fighting censorship
The booming Chinese media is still under the control of the ruling Communist Party’s “publicity department.” Editors are free to make money through advertising, modernise their papers and even raise capital on the stock exchange, but they must exercise self-censorship and each day they get official instructions about what topics must be avoided.
The government has spent a lot on keeping its monopoly of broadcasting (CCTV) and the news agency Xinhua. The building of a “broadcasting Great Wall” to jam reception of foreign radio stations has been stepped up, with erection of special antennae all over the country with the help of the French firm Thalès.
The Communist Party also keeps control through fear, such as that sparked among journalists by the 2004 arrest of three figures on the liberal daily Nanfang Dushi Bao. Another journalist, Shi Tao, was then jailed for 10 years for supposedly revealing state secrets. Chinese journalists working for foreign media are especially targeted. Ching Cheong, Hong Kong correspondent for the Singapore daily The Straits Times, was arrested in April 2005. State security police continue to spy on journalists and often arrest, threaten or beat those who infringe the official “Guide for Correspondents Working in China.” Access is barred to dozens of foreign-based news websites and investment by foreign media firms in China is severely restricted.
China is the world’s biggest prison for journalists, with 31 in jail. But the most common punishment is dismissal (the fate of the editor of the magazine Tong Zhou Gong Jin in September 2005) or exclusion.
Libel suits and physical attacks are also routinely used by local authorities and private firms against the media. Dozens of journalists have been hauled before courts or been visited by toughs when they have taken too close an interest in embezzlement in a country eaten away by corruption.