Gao Qinrong: CHINA
In China, criticising Communist Party policy can be a dangerous pastime. Gao Qinrong knows this full well, having paid the price. With the best of intentions, this journalist, who had been working with Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, was sentenced in 1999 to 13 years in prison for having investigated and published an article about the failure of an irrigation project in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province.
Local authorities had been touting this project-which entailed the construction of 60,000 water tanks in just six months-as "a triumph over nature in this arid land." However, while investigating the matter, Gao Qinrong discovered that the tanks were not connected to any water supply and there were no pipes to conduct the water into the fields. In an article printed in the 27 May 1998 issue of the Neibu Cankao Xiaoxi, a newspaper written for Communist Party senior officials, Gao Qinrong maintained that the sole aim of the project was to further the ambitions of certain local leaders, to the detriment of the farmers’ interests. After he was convicted, Gao Qinrong wrote a letter to the Chinese Party leadership in which he explained: "The Communist Party’s Central Committee has ruled that corruption must be fought. As a party member and journalist, I thought that it was my duty to report the grievances of the Chinese people."
Gao Qinrong, now 48, is morally and physically exhausted from his incarceration. "He has become weak and has lost his hair. He can no longer write because his hands shake too much. And I am only permitted to visit him once a month," confided his wife, Duan Maoying. "Everyone is afraid because there is a lot of pressure from the top," she acknowledged to foreign journalists based in Beijing. She reported that she had entreated President Jiang Zemin, the Prime Minister, the Supreme Court, the Communist Party’s Central Disciplinary Committee and local and national press representatives to intervene on his behalf. None of them were willing to support Gao’s case. Only a few courageous Chinese journalists (employed by the Southern Weekend weekly newspaper) have published articles about the jailed journalist-and some of them have since been fired.
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón: CUBA
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, founder of the Línea Sur Press, a small, privately run press agency-in a country where all information is state-controlled-was sentenced in November 1997 to six years in prison for "insulting" the country’s President, Fidel Castro, and Vice-President, Carlos Lage. In a Miami radio station interview, Padrón had called the two leaders "liars," after accusing them of failing to abide by the democratic principles agreed upon in an earlier Ibero-American Summit.
Padrón first strayed outside of Cuban law in 1995. At that time, he was a railway employee and became a member of a human rights association not approved by the State. He created Línea Sur Pres in October 1996 to make the public aware of the ways in which the Cuban government was violating their fundamental rights.
His insistence on speaking out against abuse of this kind, which led to his arrest, also explains why he is still behind bars. In March 2002, the journalist released information about prison conditions in the centre where he was being held. He was instantly deprived of his wife’s visits and, the following month, prison authorities turned down his request to be released on parole-his fourth such request since October 2000-the month in which he was theoretically entitled to parole, having served half of his term. The grounds for the refusal were that the journalist had not yet been "politically re-educated."
Since his sentencing in 1997, Padrón has been transferred from one labour camp to another, where he has been assigned such tasks as weeding, and cutting sugarcane. In July 2002, he was once again jailed in central Cuba’s Ariza Prison, where, on 11 April 1998, two security guards had severely beaten him.
After this latest transfer, and as his final year of imprisonment approaches, Padrón has deteriorated physically and psychologically. He fears that he may be indicted on some other grounds and given yet another prison term. His wife, Libertad, no longer believes that he will soon be granted parole. "Only a miracle from God could make them release Bernardo before he has finished serving his sentence," she confided, torn between devotion and despair.
Michčle Montas: HAĎTI
"The guilty always manage to get away with it. This time, they won’t get the chance," Michčle Montas assured us. On 3 April 2000, her husband, Jean Dominique, managing director of Radio Haďti Inter and the best-known journalist in Haiti, was shot down in the station’s courtyard. "Jean was killed because he couldn’t be controlled," she explained. It was their independent opinions that had already forced the journalist couple to flee the country in 1980, when the Duvalier father and son were ruling Haiti, and then again in 1991, during the military coup.
Since the death of her husband, this woman in her fifties has been managing the radio station and has resolved to devote her life and her microphone to carrying on the fight to make certain that the investigation into the murder of her husband-"Jean Do"-will bring his killers to justice. On several occasions, Radio Haďti Inter suspended its broadcasts to protest against the obstacles hindering the inquiry: pressures exerted on the examining magistrate, suspicious killings by two alleged murderers, arrest warrants never executed by the police, the Senate’s refusal to waive the immunity of one of its members, etc. Even President Aristide seems to be shielding the implicated killers by refusing-without explanation-to renew the term of Judge Gassant, who was in charge of the case.
In April 2002, the station once again turned off its microphones. "Two years is much too long," declared its managing officers, denouncing "the manoeuvring tactics of the judiciary, the Senate and the executive branch." Meanwhile, a second journalist was murdered. Guaranteeing the killers’ impunity has become the most effective way for the authorities to intimidate the press. In June, a new magistrate was appointed to take over the case. Michčle Montas announced that she would judge him by his actions and is anxiously awaiting his findings. At the least sign of any wrongdoing, this journalist’s voice and microphone are ready to demand "Justice for Jean Do."
Myroslava Gongadze: UKRAINE
On 16 September 2000, Myroslava Gongadze’s life took a nightmarish turn. Her husband, Georgiy Gongadze-editor-in-chief of the on-line newspaper, www.pravda.com.ua-was murdered. His decapitated body was discovered two months later. The death of this young journalist who had been very critical of the regime has become a case of such national significance that it is casting a shadow on the good name of President Leonid Kuchma himself. Even today, neither those who ordered the killing, nor the perpetrators, have been identified, because of all of the obstacles that have impeded the investigation.
Myroslava and her husband began their journalistic careers at the same time. Like him, she covered political subjects for her radio and television programmes. She is convinced that Gongadze was assassinated because he was considered a "troublemaker." To avoid being made a political scapegoat, and to protect her little twin girls, Nana and Salomé, she requested political asylum in the United States, which she obtained in the spring of 2001. Her departure allowed her to pursue her work as a journalist with the Ukrainian branch of Radio Free Europe in Washington D.C., to enlist her tenacity and journalistic skills in the struggle to defend press freedom and to try to discover the truth about her husband’s death. The young woman is taking part in every effort being made to further the inquiry. She has publicly intervened in the Ukraine on many occasions through the auspices of the OSCE and of the Council of Europe and is helping to devise an international legal mechanism that would ensure the safety of journalists and press freedom in Eastern Europe. Thanks to her drive and determination, Myroslava Gongadze has become a veritable "public figure" and a symbol that the Ukrainian government cannot ignore.